The Jewish Museum in New York City became one of the latest cultural institutions that has taken steps to unionise when, on 10 January, staff there filed a petition for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) via representatives of Local 2110 UAW. If approved, the union would include art handlers, curators, development staff, educators, visitor experience and retail employees, and other administrative staff.
“The Jewish Museum is aware that staff have petitioned for a union election,” a spokesperson for the Jewish Museum says. “The Museum greatly values its staff and will respectfully engage in any process that transpires.”
The Jewish Museum joins the ranks of many other arts institutions across the US where employees are currently engaging in union organising and contract negotiation efforts, including the Art Institute of Chicago school and museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Hispanic Society and many others. Forming unions has become a larger trend in the cultural sector due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has further exposed many of the larger gaps in this sector that cultural workers experience including low pay, difficult working conditions, inadequate benefits and a lack of job security, while front-facing museum staff such as retail workers, educators, security guards and others are often the most at-risk of Covid-19 exposure.
The pandemic also brought on many layoffs and furloughs at museums nationwide. With the Omicron variant now sweeping the nation, many museums have had to limit their hours, impose new safety guidelines and in some cases even close, often due to staff shortages, giving more momentum to the union movement.“Low pay is a problem across the whole industry,” says Bryan Cook, an art handler at the Jewish Museum who has been involved in unionising efforts there and at the Guggenheim Museum. I know definitely among full time staff, the waxing and waning of benefits as HR plays with insurance providers every year certainly can be frustrating. Job security overall in a precarious world is very important.”
Officials at the museum have until January 20th to respond to the staff’s request for a union election. From there, if the request is not challenged, elections will be held.