Last week, Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers (Local 30) filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union on behalf of employees at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. If the petition, which seeks to represent just under 100 staff, is approved, it will stand to be the first such union at the institution in its 82-year history.
Of the 90 employees represented by Local 30, 10 are full time maintenance mechanics and engineers and the remaining 80 are art installers which includes art handlers, framers, carpenters, and multimedia technicians. In other words, the people who might not be named in an exhibition catalogue but ensure the operation of a museum is a seamless as possible and that artworks are well taken care of. According to Andres Puerta, director of Local 30’s special projects, the museum pays art installers directly but they are on call versus having a set schedule so that they are readily available when the museum needs them.
‘We respect the right of our employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union,’ the Guggenheim reported in a statement to The New York Times. ‘This matter is now pending with the National Labor Relations Board.’
A hearing with the labor board is scheduled to take place later today according to Puerta unless the museum and the union reach an agreement on the issues highlighted by the petition. The Guggenheim has worked with Steven Swirsky, a lawyer with Epstein Becker Green, an employment law firm, since 2017 and Puerta sees that as a major obstacle in the process saying ‘they are positioned to fight the workers.’ However, a representative of the museum stated that it has looked to Epstein Becker Green for council in the past few years and continues to work with them through this matter.
‘The work culture of the Guggenheim is one of the museum’s distinguishing characteristics,’ said the museum, ‘and we recognize and appreciate the commitment and contributions of the talented staff who bring its mission to life every day.’ However, one employee who spoke with The New York Times claims that wages had not changed in the past three years, though the Guggenheim said that employees received a 2 percent pay increase in May of this year that was retroactive to March.
They’re putting priceless artworks into our hands and they expect quality work. But we’re still receiving the same wages that we got three years ago’ -Eric Heist, a Guggenheim art installer
The call to unionize is not unique to the Guggenheim as some of its employees have followed in the path of various other museum staffers in recent months. Earlier this year, a union was formed at the New Museum in New York and security guards for the Frye Art Museum in Seattle are currently in the process of forming a representative body. At the MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art, and Vancouver Art Gallery, unions have helped employees secure better wages in the past. The motion at the Guggenheim also follows a walkout that occurred last summer, when employees of the MoMA used the demonstration as a bargaining chip to achieve better pay, and a recent Google Spreadsheet that circulated with anonymous museum employees providing their salaries. The Guggenheim employees that participated ranked among some of the lowest paid on the document.