- Interview by
- Aqsa Ahmad
Last week, the New York Times reported that nearly two hundred employees at the Whitney Museum of American filed a petition for a unionization vote with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), joining a number of museums across the city and country that have organized in recent years. The proposed bargaining unit would include visitor services and gallery assistants, porters, curators, conservators, editors, educators, and other employees.
Yesterday, the Whitney informed the NLRB of its intent to waive the need for an election, thereby voluntarily recognizing the union — a huge win for its workers, who had been in contact with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110 since the museum’s reopening in the fall. Local 2110 represents other prominent New York arts institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Jacobin assistant editor Aqsa Ahmad, who worked at the Whitney two years ago as a gallery assistant, spoke to Karissa Francis, a visitor services assistant who’s been at the museum for four years and one of the lead organizers of the union campaign. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
For anyone that’s been following labor organizing in the art world the past few years, it seemed like it was only a matter of time that the Whitney, which had been host to a number of high-profile protests and controversy during that time, would eventually try to unionize. When did this union drive start, and how did it come about?
This is not unique to the Whitney. A lot of people are seeing how other labor movements have gone on, including me, and have felt inspired and have woken up to the fact that this is possible and is a positive thing. The pandemic set a lot of people off, too, bringing to light a lot of issues like job security and pay equity and gaps in health care. I was inspired by the New Museum fight. I read a bunch of collective bargaining agreements and looked at what is possible.
My coworkers and I started talking to each other last fall, especially around reopening. [The Whitney reopened in late August with social distancing guidelines and limited capacity.] I emailed [UAW Local 2110] in September. From there, we started talking to colleagues outside. At first, I didn’t know where to start; I didn’t know how to start a union.
So I sent an email: “Hey, I’ve been talking to a few of my colleagues in visitor services, we’re interested.” And then from there, it spread. Then we started having conversations generally about unionizing, what people were feeling, and if they thought it was viable.
The Whitney, like other arts institutions at the onset of the pandemic, furloughed and laid off staff last April in 2020 and then recently laid off about fifteen workers this February. Was that around the time you guys began those conversations more seriously? And what are the main concerns for workers across the board?
My main reasons are job security and pay equity and health care. After seeing those layoffs and then the second round of layoffs, people were kind of shaken. There is a direct correlation between the layoffs and talking to our colleagues and being like, “This sucks, and there’s nothing in place that can stop this from happening to any of us.”
A job in, say, visit experience working as gallery assistant or as a visitor services assistant is often framed as a temporary job, or as a stepping-stone to a better job, which might be true for some people, but for many workers, this job is a source of pride, something they love and take seriously and consider as their career.
There’s something psychologically that happens when you are unionized, because you go from being an at-will employee to an employee whose firing requires a just cause. Something as small as that makes you feel like, “Okay, I can keep doing this job, I can feel secure and also enjoy what I’m doing.”
Also, people who are in these positions for a long time see a lot of changes at work. When you’re in a position that you don’t feel secure in, those changes feel really scary at times. When there are things like layoffs and a pandemic happening, it puts into perspective that you don’t have a say in a lot of what goes on at work when you’re not unionized.
How did the union campaign come to include 180 workers from so many different departments, from porters to curators, conservators, editors, and visitor services assistants? For some people, the idea of a curator or an editor or a conservator being in a union maybe doesn’t sound fitting, because many people often traditionally associate unions with blue-collar work.
You’re front of house, but what was the response from back of house toward forming a union? Was their apprehension?
We really wanted to establish a wall-to-wall union [one that covers all workers across departments in a given workplace]. We’re stronger in numbers. The more of us there are, the more power we have as a bargaining unit. I didn’t want anyone to be left out or to ignore a whole population of people that may be vulnerable in ways that I didn’t think but who would benefit from a union.
There are other unions in the museum, so it’s not like anything new. [Some of the security guards at the Whitney are union, as well as the art handlers.]
Pre-pandemic, the Whitney is a very close-knit community. That’s something I really appreciate about the museum: there’s a lot of cross-departmental communication. And people genuinely like each other, so it honestly wasn’t that difficult, because we all regularly talked to each other pretty often. So it wasn’t difficult to find common ground. A lot of people who work at the Whitney are happy to be there and are interested in the Whitney and care about the Whitney, so automatically you have something to connect on.
Most people were supportive and open to learning more about how a union can work. I didn’t really see much apprehension like, “I’m not sure if a union is appropriate for this industry.” Because there were other big names, particularly the New Museum, that were very recently in the news, it was already starting to catch on a bit. UAW Local 2110 has been great about relaying relevant information and answering tricky questions, and they have a lot of experience with museums. They’ve been at MoMA since the seventies. That definitely put people at ease.
The New York Times reported the other day that workers at the Brooklyn Museum are also taking steps toward unionizing with the same local.
We were just joking about having a really big mixer about it, so that we could meet other arts colleagues.
Could you talk a little bit more about the wage inequities? How much do you make, and when was the last time you got a raise?
It’s no secret that our workers are very low paid across the board. That, coupled with concerns about health care, came to the forefront during the pandemic — we might be pushed out of our jobs, we might not have a job soon, can you afford to get sick? Things like that are always in the back of your mind.
Unionizing is a step toward more equity. It forces the museum to be more transparent, too, about how we’re paid as time goes on. It also allows us to have more open conversations about wages. I think that the main problem with wage inequity is that people just won’t say what their salaries are and be open. That’s why people don’t realize how low paid we are. That lack of transparency is what we’re pushing against and another major motivator for unionizing, because just being able to talk about it and negotiate automatically levels the playing field.
I make a little under $30,000, about $19 an hour. I believe the last time I got a raise was two years ago. I’ve worked there for four years. My starting wage was $16.
What are your concerns regarding health care benefits at the Whitney?
For me, a big motivation for going from part-time to full-time was insurance. I wasn’t on my parents’ insurance, and I didn’t have the option to be on my parents’ insurance. So insurance is super important, especially when there’s a deadly virus going around.
The fact that our health care is tied to employment is already so stressful and wild. And the fact that even if you are working, say, two part-time jobs and working like eighty hours a week, you still won’t get health care is extremely upsetting. So that was another huge motivation for unionizing.
Can you talk about other big changes that you’ve seen take place at the Whitney that factored into your decision to unionize?
The biggest change has been mostly health and safety concerns regarding the pandemic. Aside from the huge layoffs, it’s not even like these health and safety changes are big and spectacular changes — but they are changes that are made without our say, and that is where it becomes an issue. We’re flexible; we can deal with a fast-paced environment. Change is not something that we’re not used to or not primed for, but it’s the way that change happens, without our say, that it becomes an issue.
I do think that the Whitney is genuinely trying to create a community of people that want to be there. But a lot of what you think you’re doing right as a company doesn’t work for your employees. Unionizing allows for a reshuffling of priorities for these institutions and [shines] a light on some blind spots that they maybe didn’t even realize they had.