Along the westernmost block of Gansevoort Street, Whitney Museum staffers rallied for fair wages and benefits on Tuesday night. From 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., the unionized workers chanted and raised signs demanding “FAIR WAGES NOW!” One picketer held up a biting reminder of Museum director Adam Weinberg’s salary, which totals around $1.1 million, according to a Whitney Museum Union press release. Just a few floors above, Weinberg celebrated the Whitney’s first annual gala since the start of the pandemic, welcoming a high-profile guest list including honorees Thelma Golden, Susan Hess and Glenn Ligon.
Whitney employees joined the United Auto Workers’ Local 2110 division last August, with a near unanimous vote. Since then, they’ve pushed for a contract “that addresses wages and benefits fairly,” says Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110. “The negotiations have progressed very slowly, and the Whitney has yet to make a fair offer.”
A spokesperson for the Whitney reports that it has been negotiating “in good faith since voluntarily welcoming Local 2110 last summer,” and that the two sides have “already made progress on a number of points.” The representative also says that the Museum submitted a proposal in April, but still awaits a response.
It appears unlikely that the union will settle for what’s currently on the table. “There hasn’t been much movement on very important issues to the union, including the status of temporary employees and compensation,” says union organizer Karissa Francis.
Flyers passed out at the rally describe poor working conditions currently in place. The handout claims that more than half of the Whitney Museum Union members earn under $20 per hour; many are still classified as part-time or temporary, even after several months working at the museum. They want job security, better health coverage and reasonable salaries.
Francis says the annual gala – which brought in over $5 million this year – was a fitting opportunity to emphasize staffers’ crucial contributions to the museum. “It’s Whitney employees that make these fundraisers happen, and that make these beautiful galas for people to enjoy, and that make the museum what it is,” she says.
COVID Spurred Employee Organization
Texas-based journalist Steven Monacelli stopped by the rally while heading in to visit the Whitney’s Biennial exhibition, which occasioned a VIP opening event that was met with similar union action in March. Monacelli says that he’s generally a supporter of unions, but the magnitude of the cause sank in as he spoke to picketers at the end of the street, with the Museum’s interior overhead. Through the window he could see “a very expensive looking dinner being set up,” he remembers. “It kind of just ... sank in for me that people inside are getting paid less than $20 an hour at this very well-funded institution.” Monacelli tweeted a photo of a union member and then wrote, “Needless to say I will not be visiting the Whitney today.”
Museum unionization spiked when exhibitions reopened after initial pandemic shutdowns. Rosenstein says the conditions were already ripe beforehand, but the furloughs and reduced hours due to COVID spurred employee organization. The Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum and New York’s Hispanic Society Museum and Library all joined Local 2110 within the same few weeks. This past Tuesday, members from several different museum unions attended the Whitney gala protests in solidarity.
Rosenstein claims she generally hasn’t seen museum leadership embrace unionization, but the spokesperson for the Whitney asserted its intention of finding common ground with employees. “The Whitney has longstanding and productive working relationships with the Museum’s other unions,” stated the representative.
“The offer they’ve made is extremely low,” Rosenstein says of the Whitney’s proposal. “We’re not going to just sit back and allow them to stall and delay and give us lip service.” She maintains that the Union will continue to take demonstrative action until its employees are satisfied.