Workers at the Whitney Museum in New York handed out leaflets Tuesday night in below-freezing temperature calling for support of their union as VIP guests arrived at an invite-only opening of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, the institution’s hallmark exhibition that occurs every two years.
About three dozen Whitney workers and allied workers from other museums stood in front of the Whitney to call attention to seemingly stalled negotiations between the union and museum leadership.
“The lack of progress has been extremely frustrating, they haven’t put a dime on the table, and that’s why we’re here tonight,” Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110, told ARTnews outside the museum Tuesday night.
Negotiations began last November, after Whitney workers voted in August to unionize by a 99 percent margin and affiliate themselves with the Technical, Office and Professional Union Local 2110 UAW, which also represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum. The union represents around 200 employees at the museum.
The union’s main proposal involves compensation, including establishing a salary floor (many workers make less than $20 an hour) and increasing health benefits.
Representatives of the Whitney emailed the following statement: “The Whitney enjoys a longstanding and productive working relationship with the 4 other unions that have been established at the Museum. The Whitney voluntarily welcomed Local 2110 last summer and has been negotiating with them in good faith since then. We’ve already made progress on a number of points. We look forward to continuing our discussions at our regularly scheduled meeting with them next week.”
“They haven’t said a word on any of our wage and economic proposals, anything about benefits and especially proposals concerning temporary staff,” said Zoe Tippl, an exhibition coordinator at the Whitney who sits on the bargaining committee. The realization of the 2022 Biennial, she said is “possible because of our hard work and dedication, even though we’re overworked and underpaid.”
Another major concern is the classification of numerous positions, particularly in frontline positions within the Visitor Services department like gallery attendants or ticket sales, as temporary or part-time, which would disqualify them from receiving benefits.
“It makes no sense,” Rosenstein said. “The Whitney has never been without visitor services staff, so why should that be a temporary position?”
Tippl added, “We’re out here today to spread awareness that the people who made this Biennial happen deserve a fair contract.”
The union also said that museum leadership has not met with them during the negotiations over the past five months; the museum has sent an HR representative and an outside attorney to the table.
Rosenstein, who has worked to build unions across many museums, said she hasn’t seen that kind of behavior before. “Not that I would says these other institutions are generous,” she said. “There are nuances and differences at different museums but there’s a very visible broad picture of real underpayment and a lack of acknowledgment for their workers, who work very hard and are often very skilled and educated.”
The pandemic has been a huge force in the national wave of unionizing. The union at the Whitney was formed in response to two successive rounds of lay-offs that stemmed from the pandemic and an almost-complete loss of tourism, and by extension a decrease in revenue, for the Whitney.
But as New York continues reopening, Rosenstein said it was time for the Whitney to work with the union to approve a contract. “Tourism is going to come back,” she said. “Places like the Whitney are not going to shutter, they’re going to thrive.”
Update: 3/31/22 10:54: The article has been updated to include a statement from the Whitney.