Just months after the Guggenheim triumphed with its blockbuster Hilma af Klint show, staff complaining about poor treatment and pay are seeking to unionize. Last week, about 80 workers, representing art installers and building maintenance workers, filed a letter of intent to affiliate with the International Union of Operating Engineers, says Andres Puerta, an organizer with the union.
Conditions behind the scenes at the Guggenheim have been deteriorating for several years, according to Puerta and two other workers interviewed for this story who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being singled out by the museum or future employers.
“Broadly, the issues are long hours and weekends with no breaks, leading to safety concerns, no raises in years, low wages compared to similar institutions, and murky scheduling procedures,” said one of the workers, who is an installer. “Maintenance has similar grievances of few raises and poorly defined work rules. We want what other museums have: increased wages and defined wage increases, explicit work rules, and more transparent scheduling policies.”
The installers also say that there has been a speed-up in terms of transitions between shows. Previously, they say, a “rotunda turnover”—meaning a change-out of the show in the museum’s main space, along the spiraling ramp of the Frank Lloyd Wright building—took six or seven weeks. Now, transitions are closer to three or four weeks, leading to overwork and exhaustion.
“We just keep meeting these deadlines, so management sees a way to save money,” says the employee. “It’s not safe for people or objects.”
A breaking point came when workers discovered that last year no one had received a raise, despite the increasing demands. This came on top of observing successful unionization efforts at other institutions, such as the New Museum and MoMA PS1, and the revelation from a widely circulated Google doc of museum staff salaries that the Guggenheim is bottom of its class among New York institutions in terms of employee compensation.
Also throwing the situation in relief: The juxtaposition between the stagnant wages and deteriorating conditions and the blockbuster success of the recent Hilma af Klint show. “We’re hot on the heels of their most successful museum show ever,” one of the workers told artnet News. “We don’t really see anything related to that. We petition them, and they don’t respond.”
According to Puerta, organizers had asked the museum to hold a “card check” election supervised by a neutral arbiter, in which a majority can vote to affiliate with a union. Museum management have instead sought to negotiate the terms of the elections via the National Labor Relations Board, in the meantime holding a series of “Employee Information Sessions” to provide “relevant facts about the situation” to affected staff, according to an email send to workers.
The first such session, with building maintenance workers, was held today. Puerta described this as a campaign to “actively pressure workers against the union.”
A representative of the Guggenheim declined to address any of the specific grievances mentioned in this story. “We have been informed that Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers is seeking to represent a certain group of our employees,” the representative wrote. “We respect the right of our employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union. This matter is now pending with the National Labor Relations Board.”
The decision to draw out the process rather than go the “card check” route has further aggravated the situation.
“The vast majority were excited about unionization, or at least in favor of it, but the museum responding as they have has now made a lot of people outright upset,” one of the workers said. “We’re being treated like parasites now that we’re not just shutting up and getting to work. Everyone understands the museum can’t outright stop us, so it’s just a matter of having the vote and enduring their propaganda until then.”
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