Today, after an eight-week strike—the longest museum strike in recent history—and close to two years of negotiating union curators, librarians, conservators, art handlers, educators, maintenance workers, development, and communications staff of the Hispanic Society Museum and Library return to work. On Friday, museum workers voted to settle the first contract between their union UAW Local 2110 and the museum board.
The Hispanic Society workers began their strike on March 27 after a year and a half of negotiations when museum and union negotiations over wages, health care, and subcontracting had reached a standstill. Over the course of the negotiations, the union filed multiple unfair labor practice suits and workers were antagonized by the museum’s management.
“Anytime it takes an 8-week strike to get an employer to agree to fair contract, the employer did not respect the staff and the values of the employer are not in line with any progressive statements they might make,” Jay Youngdahl a civil rights lawyer who has represented unions and workers for over twenty years wrote to Cultbytes. “The employer, however, can change this reality by the way it works with the union during the life of the agreement,” Youngdahl continues.
The ratified two and half year contract will raise salaries by over 18%, establish contributions to a new 403(b) plan and preserve fully paid health benefits. The contract also calls for a labor-management committee, health and safety protection, severance pay and professional development funds of up to $500 per year per worker.
Now that an agreement has been reached relationships between staff and management can soften. Staff of the Hispanic Society welcome the new contract and are eager to get back to work. “We are elated about the new contract,” said Patrick Lenaghan, a curator who has worked at the Hispanic Society for 28 years. “It provides the security we never had before. With this, we can concentrate on the work we love and dedicated so many years to.”
Negotiations had been ongoing since the Hispanic Society workers voted to unionize in May 2021 following a wave of unionization campaigns at the Whitney Museum, New Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Guggenheim. Maida Rosenstein Director of Organizing for Local 2110 of the UAW (United Automobile Workers) explains that first contracts often are the most difficult to achieve: “it is not uncommon for it to take more than a year to settle a contract,” she comments to Cultbytes. However, not all processes are as difficult. “We reached an agreement on a first contract with the New Museum within seven months but that is unusual,” Rosenstein continues.
The Hispanic Society’s first contract will expire September 30, 2025 and the union usually begins negotiations 60-90 days in advance of its expiration date. “I would generally expect negotiations to run anywhere from one to six months depending on the issues we are bargaining over,” Rosenstein tells Cultbytes when we asked about contract renewals. Local UAW 2110 has negotiated multiple contracts with MoMA, New York Historical Society, and Bronx Museum as they have represented workers there for many years.
It is in museum management’s best interest to reach agreements swiftly—both to safeguard their collections, cared for by staff members, but also to protect their reputation. News of negotiations unfold in the media and the museum’s public take to the streets to support union staff on the picket line. Cultbytes has reported on picketing outside of Hispanic Society board member Phillippe De Montebello’s apartment building and at the entrance of Brooklyn Museum as guests arrived at their most important fundraiser.
Brooklyn Museum and the union, who began their negotiations before the Hispanic Society, have yet to come to an agreement and will meet again at the negotiation table on June 5th. According to Youngdahl this negotiation period is too long. “Two years is nearly unheard of. The conduct of the Brooklyn Museum is reprehensible, and fully out of line with the general conduct of responsible employers.”
Employers must stop taking advantage—by offering low wages and poor benefits—of cultural workers, museums should instead strive toward being good and competitive employers. Importantly, Youngdahl remarks: “Once it is clear that the employees want and need collective solidarity to ensure a just workplace, a good employer will quickly engage with the workers in a meaningful way.”
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to email@example.com.