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Fight at the Museum

Lily Bartle

The white-collar art world isn't a hotbed of labor radicalism. But at the New Museum in Manhattan, workers are unionizing. We spoke to a museum worker about it.

The New Museum in New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Meagan Day

Earlier this month, workers at the New Museum in Manhattan sent a letter to the National Labor Relations Board declaring their intent to unionize. United Auto Workers Local 2110 was eager to welcome them, but management swiftly intervened. The museum hired Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, a consulting firm that has helped over five hundred bosses realize their dream of a “union-free future,” to stop the campaign in its tracks.

But despite holding urgent meetings to explain just how horrible unions are, management hasn’t been able to deter the museum workers.

“The museum’s response left a lot of people feeling uncomfortable and even more certain about moving forward with the union,” says Lily Bartle, an editor at the New Museum and a member of the organizing committee spearheading the union effort. “We’ve only gotten stronger since we went public with the campaign.”

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Bartle about worker organizing, management resistance, and class consciousness in the white-collar art world.


MD

Why did you and your coworkers decide to unionize?

LB

I think that a lot of the timing had to do with the impending capital campaign. The museum is planning to take over the building next door, and break ground this year. The building will be designed by the architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA. It’s an $85 million dollar expansion project.

To us, it raises questions about the museum’s priorities. There are people working full-time at the New Museum making as little as $35,000 a year, which is not a living wage in New York. The capital campaign shows us that while the museum is capable of raising a huge amount of money in a short amount of time, they’re only willing to do it for the sake of expansion, not for the sake of their employees.

Museum employees began airing grievances in conversations after work and went from there. With the institution in flux, there’s been a lot of stress and insecurity from the employees about the future, and how we can be guaranteed a say in our terms and conditions of employment.

Wages and compensation are a huge source of concern, but we’re also worried about health and safety, especially with all the construction that’s going to be happening in the coming year. And we’re thinking about health insurance, especially for the part-timers who currently don’t even have the option to buy into the health plan.

MD

How did the museum respond when they found out you were forming a union?

LB

They responded by hiring Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, a union-busting firm. They randomly designated a number of employees as supervisors in order to disqualify them from the union, despite the fact that they have no actual supervisory authority as it’s stipulated by the NLRB. They also held a number of meetings to offer us their perspective on what a union might do for the institution, which was definitely a negative perspective on the prospect of unionizing.

They told us things like, “Unions create divisions that weren’t there before between employees,” and “Unions build walls where there were none.” But thus far the campaign has actually bridged a lot of the gaps that were built into the institutional structure of the museum, and there has been an incredible amount of solidarity across virtually every department of the museum throughout this effort. The museum’s response left a lot of people feeling uncomfortable and even more certain about moving forward with the union. We’ve only gotten stronger since we went public with the campaign.

MD

How many people have been involved in this effort?

LB

We originally suggested that the bargaining unit would be around seventy-four people. That number has been contested by the museum, and I think they’re saying it’s now fifty-three eligible people for the unit. Of that, I’d say that there are about ten or fifteen people who are consistently involved in the organizing committee. And then maybe like five or six core members.

MD

The museum hosts exhibitions that often foreground themes of inequality and injustice. How does it feel to work around these exhibitions knowing that management is so resistant to fair wages and collective bargaining?

LB

It’s incredibly frustrating. But this isn’t necessarily uncommon in the art world. Even museums that don’t have progressive mission statements are showing work that puts forward progressive values or encourages critical thinking about society or social inequity. There’s a larger inconsistency in the art world, where institutions often don’t mirror these values in their hiring and firing and conditions of employment.

The New Museum is little bit different though, because it does have this radical history. It was founded by Marcia Tucker in 1977, and she envisioned a non-hierarchical institution, where every employee would work every job on a rotating schedule and so forth. A lot of us who’ve been involved with the unionization campaign see the union as a continuation of that legacy and that vision, getting the museum back on track and embodying the values that it claims to have.

MD

What pressures and dynamics in the art world caused the museum to drift so far away from this original radical vision?

LB

A lot of it has to do with a lack of public funding and a shift toward donations from the private sector.

MD

Have you been following the teachers’ strikes?

LB

A bit, and I see what you’re getting at — about the role of privatization and charter schools. People in the art world have similar concerns. Unlike with schools, we don’t have a lot of purely publicly funded museums in America, so I don’t see there being a huge basis for a revolutionary social change in the art world as much as there may be in education.

But I think the art world is similar in terms of increasingly relying on charitable giving from wealthy individuals, as opposed to demanding adequate public funding for the arts and cultural institutions.

MD

Museum workers may not see themselves as analogous to teachers or other unionized workers, and that may make it harder to organize. People who work white-collar jobs at prestigious institutions often don’t really identify as workers, even when they make low wages and are at the mercy of the boss. Do you encounter any resistance along those lines?

LB

Yes, definitely. I’ve heard it in the museum. You know, “Aren’t unions for coal miners?”

In the museum world, there’s this kind of mentality where people, especially people coming from liberal arts backgrounds, feel lucky to have even gotten paid jobs in their field. And they see these cultural institutions as launchpads for individual careers and pursuits.

A lot of young people get entry-level positions at museums or galleries with the hopes of working their way up the ladder to the position of curator or director. There’s an individualist ethos that’s totally oriented around the possibility of upward mobility. In that way, the industry is a little bit allergic to organizing.

But at the same time, the financial reality of museum workers is just not sustainable in New York at this point. There is an assumption that workers in this field come from a privileged background and can take care of themselves financially. This assumption excludes the majority of people and creates serious problems for anyone who isn’t coming to the museum world from a place of significant economic and racial privilege.

I come from a middle-class background. I went to predominantly white schools and higher educational institutions. But even people like me, a lot of us have student loan debt. We’re still recovering from these incredibly expensive undergraduate experiences. My friends who are lawyers aren’t going to pay off their student loan debt any time soon, so that doesn’t bode well for us museum workers.

You get to a certain age and you realize that, you know, I’m twenty-five or I’m thirty, and I have this much debt and the number isn’t getting any smaller. I’ve had a number of these jobs at prestigious institutions, and what is it actually getting me? The answer is not very much. It’s not sustainable to be job-hopping every two years, especially if you have debt or you have dependent family members or health concerns or something like that. It really comes down to economics.

We were brought to the prospect of organizing by practical concerns, not by a radical perspective. That said, this process has been a huge exercise in consciousness-raising for me and everybody else involved.

MD

What are some of the biggest concerns you encounter about unionizing from your coworkers?

LB

The union-busting firm has focused on the 2 percent union dues. We try to answer that concern by explaining that Local 2110 doesn’t charge dues until the first contract with management has been ratified by the unit.

We also want to emphasize that while the union can’t make any specific promises about raises, what it can do is establish an infrastructure with which we can have a continued voice in negotiating the terms and conditions of our employment. Without that, any promises or concessions the museum makes to us can be taken away just as quickly as they’re given. This union is not just about getting raises that would account for dues. It’s also about creating an infrastructure for our security and our continued input in our work.

Another thing people are concerned about is retaliation. They’re worried about destroying relationships with people who are important in the art world and being blacklisted or not getting good recommendations for their next job. This goes back to the individual upward mobility ethos. It’s all about, “Where do I want to be in ten years?” That’s a much harder question to answer. The only thing that we can really offer in exchange for retaliation is solidarity.

MD

Do you think the campaign has drawn strength from the growing visibility of progressive ideas, or the socialist electoral surge that started in 2016?

LB

I don’t want to draw too clear of a relationship between this organizing process and electoral politics, because this is primarily about our conditions at the museum. But yes, I do think the 2016 election did kind of broaden the conversation, and encourage a lot of people who normally would tend more towards the center to participate in things like organizing and forming unions in their workplace.

Inequity in the white-collar workplace and in the museum world, those are not new. But the discourse is changing, and what’s acceptable is changing. Conversations about unionizing are becoming more publicly acceptable, and I think that that’s great. I think everybody should be in a union and every cultural institution in New York should be unionized, without question. It would raise people’s class consciousness and improve their material conditions at the same time.

MD

Are you in a socialist group?

LB

I’m a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

MD

Are you okay with me printing that?

LB

Sure. If I’m going to get blacklisted, I figure it’s already in the works.