The art world is notorious for low wages, slim benefits, and little upward mobility. But on February 16, labor organizers gained a win: 22 full time workers and 145 on-call staff members at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 30, entered into a 3-year agreement with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The museum, which opened in 1959, has never had a union before. These 167 union members, who install the exhibitions and keep the museum running, have received wage increases — about 10 percent plus bonuses — and increased transparency in scheduling, rules, and job levels.
Unionized employees who work full-time will no longer have to pay out of their own pockets for healthcare and retirement benefits, which will now be the responsibility of the Guggenheim itself, whose endowment stood at $85,538,857 as of 2018.
Institutions like the Guggenheim should be providing benefits for all of their workers, full-time or not. But while we continue to fight our bosses tooth and nail, we should never forget that these benefits should be provided by the government. Healthcare and the ability to retire are human rights and should be protected as such. While it’s great that workers in the arts are beginning to receive some of this assistance, we need to keep fighting.
Guggenheim facilities workers, including art handlers, engineers, fabrication specialists, and those who maintain exhibition spaces, originally voted to join Local 30 twenty months ago on June 27, 2019. Since then, there have been numerous demonstrations, letters sent to the board of directors, and a year of back and forth with the Guggenheim Foundation. Unsurprisingly, rather than give in to workers’ demands, the museum has worked with an anti-union law firm since 2017, and employed malicious tactics like anti-union emails and meetings.
Like in many other sectors, the Covid-19 crisis exacerbated conditions for Guggenheim workers. The museum received millions in federal funds, but laid workers off anyway and used the pandemic as an excuse to further delay negotiations with IUOE.
When they reopened to the public at the end of September 2020, they were met with “Scabby” the rat, and a light show by The Illuminator. Additionally, an LED-sided truck flashing #DoBetterGuggenheim with images of the director and CFO, and links to damning articles regarding the museum’s malpractices, was parked in front of the museum on October 3. The demonstrators were publicizing issues including the racist culture, low pay and long hours, and layoffs.
Guggenheim Union member Bryan Cook, an art handler at the museum, told Hyperallergic, “Throughout negotiations, it was clear that management understood the level of work we produce in support of world-class exhibitions, but that they had no intention of compensating us fairly… We have never received what we deserve, but we all deserve this contract. I’m very happy, and look forward to getting even more in 2.5 years.”
The arts sector has been moving towards unionization for a long time, especially in the last few years. In New York City, there has been a wave of museum employees organizing for fair wages and better conditions since 2018. Art handlers at MoMA PS1 also belong to IUOE Local 30, and workers at the New Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sotheby’s, and Christie’s have successfully bargained for collective contracts. Hopefully other arts workers across the country will look to the Guggenheim’s engineers and art handlers as a further example, and take up their own organizing fights as well.