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labor In 2022, Art Workers Continued To Unionize and Strike for Their Rights

Momentum for unions and unionization efforts in art museums, art institutions, and art schools continued in 2022, as workers bargained for better conditions, held strikes, and even ratified contracts.

Momentum for unions and unionization efforts in art museums, art institutions, and art schools continued in 2022, as workers bargained for better conditions, held strikes, and even ratified contracts. 

In the past decade, workers at large institutions like the New Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, have formed unions. They’ve often sought higher wages, better job security, and a voice in institutional policies like safety protocols, and have typically joined groups like the Local 2110 Union of Auto Workers (UAW) and local councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

The continued unionization movement now includes non-tenure track arts faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In May, around 200 lecturers and non-ranked adjuncts at one of America’s biggest art schools signed a letter announcing their intention to unionize.

“Our working conditions are intolerable,” the faculty members said in their letter. “We write in protest of a two-tier system of compensation and benefits that is creating a permanent underclass of contingent faculty.”

This letter followed a successful unionization vote in January by workers at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was the first museum in the Windy City to achieve that status, followed quickly by staff at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who also voted to unionize within 24 hours of the Art Institute of Chicago’s vote.

In July, staffers at the Baltimore Museum of Art successfully voted to unionize after announcing plans to form one in 2021. A big factor in their decision was the health risks faced by front of house staff, especially at the beginning of the pandemic; these workers said they had little input in the museum’s safety protocols and daily decision-making.

The BMA did not layoff or furlough employees, but mass layoffs at other arts institutions often highlighted the fragility of employment in the industry.

The move was supported by a statement from Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who wrote, “I am incredibly proud of the workers at the BMA and my friends at AFSCME for a successful union election today. Coming from a union household, I know the power and agency that union membership affords workers. I am happy that more residents will be able to reap those benefits.”

In September, 90 percent of the union-eligible workers at the Dia Art Foundation successfully voted to unionize with Local 2110 United Auto Workers. More than 100 staff members at multiple Dia locations—including the museum in Beacon, New York, its gallery in Manhattan, as well as outposts in New Mexico and Germany—are now represented after organizing around issues like low wages.

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“Dia’s development in Beacon has actually driven up the cost of housing here. Most of us can’t afford to live in the area, not on Dia wages,” said Joel Olzak, a gallery attendant at the Beacon space, in a past statement.

In October, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the PMA Union, an affiliate of District Council 47 of the AFSCME, reached a three-year agreement after a 19-day strike. The strike began on September 16, prompted by the museum’s initial offer of salary increases totaling 8.5 percent over the next 10 months, and 11 percent by July 1, 2024, which the union rejected.

Leaders of the PMA union and the museum’s board of trustees approved the three-year contract. Two days later, votes from the union’s 180 worker members were 99 percent in favor of the agreement.

“I feel good about the terms. They met everything that we asked for,” Adam Rizzo, PMA union president, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. This included retroactive salary increase, raises of 14 percent over the next three years, and an increase on the minimum hourly wage for museum workers from $15 to $16.75. Other benefits in the new contract include lower costs for health care and four weeks of paid parental leave. 

Once workers voted to unionize in August 2020, the contract negotiation between PMA and its union took more than two years.

In December, part-time faculty at the New School, which includes the Parsons School of Design, agreed to end their three-week strike.

As ARTnews’s Tessa Solomon noted at the time, the move by more than 1,300 active adjunct professors— nearly 80 percent of the teaching faculty at the New York school—“was the longest-ever strike by adjunct faculty in the United States, and the culmination of seven acrimonious months of negotiations over job security, healthcare, and stagnant wages.” 

Despite comprising an overwhelming percentage of the school’s workforce, the salaries of part-time faculty represented only 8.5 percent of the school’s budget. Instructors cited rising inflation and the skyrocketing costs of living in New York City for the insufficiency of salary increases over the past four years. In November, the union rejected a 3.5 percent wage increase the New School offered after asking for 10 percent.

Also this month, unionized workers at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, voted to ratify their first contract and join Local 2110 UAW. The vote happened after a short strike during this past summer and months of negotiations, especially over annual increases in hourly wages.

“After 14 months of bargaining, our members voted overwhelmingly in favor of ratifying our first contract! We’re proud of having secured a strong agreement that we can build on,” a post from the union read.

Other benefits that were negotiated as part of the new contract include professional development reimbursement, a bonus for full-time employees eligible for retirement, and a “LemonAid Fund,” a mutual aid fund set aside for employees facing “sudden hardship.”