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Rally at New Museum reception brings attention to union negotiations

Bargaining committee member says it is “feeling hopeful that progress will be made”

A demonstration outside the New Museum's summer exhibitions opening reception called attention to union negotations Courtesy of the New Museum Union

Last night, around 50 demonstrators at the opening reception for the New Museum’s summer exhibitions held a rally to bring attention to labour negotiations between the New Museum Union-UAW Local 2110 and the museum’s management. This follows a meeting between the union’s bargaining unit and the New York museum’s management a week ago, 19 June, over contract writing and negotiations, the sixth such official gathering since the union voted to form in January.

“We do want guests to come check out the shows everyone on staff has worked hard to put on, albeit with some knowledge of the union,” a union member said the day before the opening. Summer shows, which open to the public today and are on view through September or October, include solo exhibitions by Mika Rottenberg, Marta Minujín, Lubaina Himid, Diedrick Brackens and Sydney Shen, and a group show with work by Melanie Crean, Shaun Leonardo and Sable Elyse Smith.

Demonstrators included staff members from the New Museum as well as supporters from institutions whose employees are also part of 2110, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music (where the staff voted to unionise two weeks ago), the Museum of Modern Art, the Freelance Media League and the United Federation of Teachers, as well as artists such as Adelita Husni-Bey—who recently had a solo show at the museum—and Hannah Black. Waving UAW signs, they handed out papers about labour negotiations between the museum and the union, which has around 75 members.

Salary negotiations have been high on the agenda along with issues like health care and paid time off. A union member told The Art Newspaper that the museum told staff members in an email this month that the merit-based raises that are often given to some employees after annual performance reviews were not likely to happen this year because of “economic challenges”. “Furthermore, executive staff members have been saying since we unionised that they are not allowed to offer merit-based raises because of the union,” she said in an email, which “is not true” and “has been refuted not only by individual staff members, but was also addressed in the first bargaining session in March”.

On 18 June, the eve of the most recent meeting between the union and museum management, union members addressed a terse letter to the museum’s director, Lisa Phillips. “We ask management whether they want to engage in a fight that allies them with a backward, inhumane administration,” it said.

“Management refuses to bargain with us at the museum, effectively separating us from the rest of membership,” the 18 June letter said, adding that “it’s been repeatedly made clear to us that the New Museum Union is still unwelcome” at the museum. The New Museum, however, told The Art Newspaper through a spokesman that “the bargaining sessions have alternated equally between the union’s offices and our legal counsel’s office where there is adequate space for meeting and breakout sessions.” The 19 June meeting between the New Museum Union bargaining committee, made up of six staff members, three representatives from Local 2110, two executives from the museum, the human resources director, the director of finance and the museum’s lawyer, was held in the lawyer’s office.

Union members say that working conditions at the museum do not reflect the radical vision of Marcia Tucker, the art historian and curator who founded the New Museum in 1977. “If you are going to put that sort of narrative in the galleries, we want that to be reflected in the working life of the museum as well,” a union member says. Meanwhile, the museum says via a spokesman: “We value and respect our staff tremendously and will continue to work together, as we always have, to advance the museum’s mission.”

“We are giving this the attention it deserves and look forward to a positive resolution and first contract with the union,” the museum says. The union has submitted all of its proposals, and Francesca Altamura, a curatorial assistant and member of the bargaining committee, says the process of ratifying a contract can take up to a year.

Altamura says there was more of a “positive energy to the room and to the bargaining table” at last week’s meeting. “We’re definitely feeling hopeful that progress will be made,” she says. “We’re looking towards the future and really committed to going back and forth at the table in a respectful way, because we’re doing our best [to] change things and we hope management is too. It’s a nice shift.”