Attendees of the Whitney Museum of Art’s gala on Tuesday night (17 May) were met with a bit of a surprise. Approximately 100 people rallied outside the museum during its annual gala—the largest annual fundraiser for the museum. The crowd consisted of members of the Whitney Museum Union, which is part of the local United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110.
Union members began gathering outside the museum around 6:30pm in anticipation of the 7pm gala armed with flyers, posters, buttons, signs and bull horns. At approximately 7pm the museum’s solar veils, which had previously been opened were pulled down, presumably to block guests' views of the protest. The front entrance to the museum had several roped off areas and hedges added to accommodate the gala guests, which also seemed to double as barricades for rally-goers. One union member stood by the entrance as guests arrived distributing flyers about the union and its message.
Formed in August of 2021, the Whitney Union includes almost 200 people across several departments including facilities, visitor services, education and curatorial. Issues that prompted staff to organise centre on working conditions at the museum and wages, among others. Over the course of the last six months, the union members have been negotiating with the museum for their first contract. And with the bargaining process ongoing, the union hoped the high-visibility protest on Tuesday would amplify its message.
“People need to be aware that the Whitney is not the same as the way it wants to brand itself as some progressive, forward-thinking institution,”says Local 2110 UAW president Maida Rosenstein. “When it comes to its own workers, they're actually quite abusive and exploitative, and they like to pretend that there aren't any workers around and that they're very pro-artists, but they're not very pro-workers.”
Many passersby interacted with the crowd by taking pictures and videos, and cars honked as gala guests made their way to the front entrance. Gala diners were seated in the front lobby of the museum, from where they could watch videos by Tony Cokes from the current Whitney Biennial—which includes at one point the phrase “in this protest is empathy”—and glimpse the protesters beyond.
“I feel really energized by the rally. We have a really great turnout. Management tried to throw us a curve ball by putting up all these stanchions and hedge barriers. But we are using our numbers and our enthusiasm to work around that,” says Zoe Tippl, a member of the bargaining committee and exhibition coordinator at the Whitney.
Tuesday’s demonstration followed a protest on 29 March that coincided with the VIP opening of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, when the union members handed out leaflets to party goers.
“We are the bones behind the Whitney. Simple as that. All we want is proper wages. Treat us like human beings,” says Sandy Laporte, a manager in the facilities department at the Whitney, and union member. “Every ground worker here puts in their blood, sweat and tears. So just be fair.” Laporte adds that over the course of the pandemic facilities and visitor services staff were repeatedly put at risk as they worked to keep the museum’s doors open to the public.
The union has also taken to social media since April, posting regular updates regarding the negotiation sessions. On 13 May they wrote that the museum’s counter proposal included decreasing annual raises from 3% to 2% effective July 1, 2022 and capping the increases at 2.5% each 1 July thereafter for four years.
The museum's proposal, the union noted, also included that there be “no restriction on how long an employee can be considered temporary and therefore, excluded from union coverage”. This would affect roughly 43 union staff members who are currently considered to be temporary staff and could lose their job after the Biennial closes on 5 September.
“The Whitney has been negotiating in good faith since voluntarily welcoming Local 2110 last summer, and together we have already made progress on a number of points,” says a spokesperson for the museum. “In April, Whitney submitted a proposal and is awaiting a response. The Whitney has longstanding and productive working relationships with the Museum’s other unions, and we look forward to continuing our discussions with Local 2110 and reaching a resolution.”