Workers at the Hispanic Society vote overwhelmingly to unionise

Employees at the New York institution join a phalanx of museum workers in the region seeking representation

The Hispanic Society Museum and Library in Washington Heights in New York

The Hispanic Society Museum and Library in Washington Heights in New York

Vexed by stagnant wages, challenging working conditions and uncertainty over their institution’s reopening, workers at the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York have voted 15-1 to unionise, labour officials announced today.

The union, Local 2110 of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, represents hundreds of other museum and university workers in New York and New England. In the last nine months alone,  staff members at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, and Film at Lincoln Center and Anthology Film Archives in New York have joined the local, and the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art have embarked on the voting process.

At the Hispanic Society, the union will represent around 20 employees, including curators, conservators, librarians, educators and facilities staff. The vote count on 15 July was carried out after a three-week mail-in balloting process, Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, said in an interview. A date has not yet been set for an initial bargaining session with management, she says, but the union would like to begin talks as soon as possible.

There was no immediate response to requests for comment from the Hispanic Society or Guillaume Kientz, a former curator at the Louvre in Paris and Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and expert on El Greco and Velázquez who recently took over as director and chief executive. The museum has struggled financially in recent years.

Local 2110 says the chief issues facing staff members at the Hispanic Society are job insecurity, the loss of a pension plan, salaries that fall below the median for museum employees in the region and poor health and safety conditions. Rosenstein says that employees are also frustrated by a shortage of information about the time line for reopening the museum, which has been closed since 2017 for renovations of its 1908 Beaux-Arts building, a National Historic Landmark in the Washington Heights neighbourhood.

The Hispanic Society, founded in 1904, constitutes a museum and reference library devoted to the arts and cultures of Spain and Portugal and their former colonies.

Among the many concerns expressed by employees are a lack of central air-conditioning in the building, an oppressive situation on hot summer days in New York and a threat to the museum’s collection, says Rosenstein. Since the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, some employees have been working for limited hours in the antiquated building, she says, with no clear idea of what the renovations will encompass or when they will be completed.

“A lot of these employees are long-term people,” she adds, “people who are very committed to the institution.” Still, Rosenstein says, “conditions are terrible for them.”

“Our exhibitions and programming are the result of hard work by a very small and dedicated staff,” Patrick Lenaghan, head of prints and photographs, who has worked at the Hispanic Society for 26 years, said in a statement. “Organising our workforce will guarantee more stable conditions and protection against further cuts.”

Lenaghan also cited the lack of central air-conditioning, describing it as a source of stress for staff members and a threat to the Hispanic Society’s 18,000-plus paintings, drawings, sculptures, decorative arts, books, manuscripts and works in other mediums.