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Union organising

Curators, conservators and educators at the Guggenheim seek to unionise

A United Auto Workers local that represents employees at several other museums files a petition on their behalf for a union vote

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Joining other cultural workers in the northeastern US, a phalanx of curators, conservators, part-time educators, digital marketing and visitor services representatives and other employees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York are moving to organise a union aligned with the United Auto Workers (UAW). The move comes over two years after art handlers, maintenance mechanics and other workers at the museum voted to join a different labour organisation, the International Union of Operating Engineers.

On Friday, Local 2110 of the UAW filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election in which roughly 160 relevant employees at the museum could vote. Among the major issues cited by the workers are job insecurity, following an 11% reduction of the museum’s staff after the museum’s pandemic-related closure last year; seniority for longer-term employees; salary inequity; health insurance; and the need for clearer communications with staff members about a range of decisions and policies.

“Through the organising process, I’ve learned about the working conditions of my colleagues,” says Julie K. Smitka, an associate producer for digital experience at the Guggenheim, in a statement. “With a union, we can bargain for a contract that respects seniority, which will lead to more longevity and sustainability in our workforce.”

The museum issued a statement saying only: “The Guggenheim has received notice of a petition from Local 2110 UAW to form a new union at the museum and recognises the right of its employees to enter collective bargaining. The museum will announce next steps shortly.”

Some trepidation about management tactics exists among employees, given that Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, warned workers during the art handlers’ organising effort in 2019 that a union could sow “divisiveness” in the museum’s ranks.

Since early 2019, the art world has seen a surge in union organising, with employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the New Museum and the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and other art institutions marshalling support for full labour representation, in several cases with Local 2110 of the UAW.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a catalyst in awakening workers to the job security they have long lacked as well as their lack of say in management decisions about salary cuts, workloads and protection of their health.