On Tuesday evening (25 April), as trustees, members and other supporters of the Brooklyn Museum arrived for the institution’s annual Brooklyn Artists Ball fundraiser, they were greeted by a picket line formed by unionised museum workers. About 80 members of the union chanted, brandished signs and passed out leaflets and buttons to gala guests in an attempt to bring more attention to their bargaining efforts. The union has been in negotiations with the museum for the last 14 months and has yet to finalise the details of its first contract. The gala proved to be the museum's most successful to date, raising $2.8m.
“There's no real movement on any of the issues that we’re most concerned about, so we are just trying to put ourselves out here to raise awareness that this is an issue in the field,” Emily McClain, an object conservation fellow and union member, said. “We are very overworked, very underpaid. We are the ones that help the museum run.”
While many guests quickly passed the picket line, some spoke briefly with union members, taking buttons and leaflets into the party. The annual gala, which raises money for the museum, was honoring the photographer Carrie Mae Weems this year. The host committee included Spike Lee, Kehinde Wiley, Cindy Sherman and Judy Chicago (whose famous Dinner Party installation of 1974-79 is a permanent fixture of the museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art).
“We’re frustrated about where we’re at in negotiations, but moments like this where we see all the support and hear the support and have so many people out here really helps us on the bargaining committee keep that motivation and keep our spirits up to fight for this fair contract,” Owen O’Brien, a member of the union’s bargaining committee and a manager within the development department, said. “We're Definitely getting some good engagement from VIPs who have gone in.”
The Brooklyn Museum union formed in August 2021 and includes around 130 full-time and part-time workers across various departments including conservation, education and visitor services. It is part of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, which also represents workers at other museums in New York and across the Northeast including the Museum of Modern Art, the Jewish Museum, the Hispanic Society Museum & Library (where workers have been on strike for nearly a month), Mass Moca and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Contract negotiations with Brooklyn Museum leadership began in January 2022 and have progressed at a “glacial slowness”, according to Maida Rosenstein, director of organising at UAW Local 2110. Subjects the union and museum officials remain at odds on include key issues such as wages. “The museum’s position in negotiations is just to lowball people on the wages. The Brooklyn museum’s wages have historically been low even within the museum field,” Rosenstein says.
According to a statement from the union, museum leaders have offered a three and a half year contract with across-the-board percentage wage increases amounting to 9% by the end of the contract. This is less than what workers at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Bronx Museum of the Arts recently won in their contract negotiations. The union is seeking a 16.25% increase across-the-board over the same year period.
In the fall of last year, UAW Local 2110 filed an unfair labour practices charge against the Brooklyn Museum with the National Labor Relations Board, which alleged that that museum leadership had engaged in unfair negotiation tactics. The union and museum administration have another bargaining session scheduled for this week.
“We respect the rights of our bargained employees to demonstrate safely and remain committed to reaching an agreement as soon as possible,” a museum spokesperson told The Art Newspaper.