Last night, as guests of the Whitney Museum enjoyed the return of its annual fundraising party, unionized workers of the institution rallied by the entrance to protest as they continue to negotiate a contract.
The temperature dropped from cold to freezing while Whitney staff and their supporters brandished signs (“Honk to Support the Whitney” and “Union Strong”) and handed out flyers that explained why, after having voted to unionize in August 2021, a contract still has not been finalized.
“The Museum is still rejecting proposals for higher wages despite historic inflation and the very high rates that they are hiring managers at,” the flyer reads, adding that the growing wage discrepancies will “continue to compress our salaries for years to come.”
Negotiations between the Whitney union and museum leadership began in November 2021, after around 200 workers voted overwhelmingly to affiliate themselves with the Technical, Office and Professional Union Local 2110 UAW, which also represents employees of the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum. According to the union, the negotiations have stalled on issues including healthcare and retirement benefits, job security for full-time and part-time staff, and wages. The union contends that Whitney leadership has proposed determining yearly wage increases without bargaining.
“Through these negotiations, we’ve tried to achieve better professional development, protection, and benefits for part-time staff,” Ramsay Kolber, a curatorial research associate at the museum, told ARTnews outside the museum. Another goal is “for those people who already have benefits, or will get them through a first contract, to not see those benefits change.”
The union has become a familiar presence at the Whitney’s luxe events, having made appearances at the Whitney Biennial in March and the museum’s Studio Party.
Last night, the Whitney celebrated its first Art Party, a gathering of patrons, collectors, and artists to raise money for the museum, after a two-year hiatus. The theme was astrology, and the attendees, some sporting sheep horns and fish scales after their zodiac sign, slinked past the protest through multiple museum entrances.
A spokesperson for the Whitney Museum told ARTnews, “The Whitney respects and appreciates its employees and their right to organize and engage in work actions. The Museum continues to negotiate in good faith with UAW Local 2110 with the goal of finalizing a contract as soon as possible. While this process is taking longer than either side would like, we have made progress, and we look forward to a resolution.”
Union members said they are still clashing with museum leadership over the classification of numerous frontline positions within the Visitor Services department as part-time or temporary, which would disqualify them from receiving benefits. According to Kolber, the museum also hires temporary workers from an outside agency, which also impedes part-time staff from obtaining more hours or benefits.
“In 2021, we voted with a 99 percent approval rate, and we’re very proud of that,” Kolber said. However, she added, “We’ve had a tremendous amount of turnover since then and I would say moral at the institution is incredibly low.”
“It’s hard to be bargaining for a year and feel like you’re not being told you matter,” she said. “Advocating for better representation in this field and better wages runs alongside the issues these institutions purport to support.”