June 2, 2021
The Whitney Museum. Photo: STEPHEN LOVEKIN/SHUTTERSTOCK
Two weeks after staff members at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art launched their campaign for union representation, the museum in an uncommon move has declared that it will voluntarily recognize the new union, which forms amid a surge of pandemic-induced organizing efforts in art institutions across the country. On May 17, around 180 conservators, curators, educators, editors, porters, and visitor-services workers petitioned to join the Local 2110 branch of the United Auto Workers union, which represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, among other museums.
“We respect the desire of our colleagues to engage in a dialogue about collective bargaining, as is their legal right, and we remain committed to supporting all staff, regardless of affiliation,” a Whitney spokesperson said in a statement.
The Whitney Union logo
The Whitney staff’s unionization comes at a time when the museum has cut back on staff amid pandemic-induced budget shortfalls. In February, 15 staffers across 11 departments were cut in an effort to address $23 million in losses. That downsizing followed an earlier round in April 2020 when 76 employees, most of whom worked in visitor services-related roles, were laid off.
“The layoffs were a wake-up call to the need for better protection,” Karissa Francis, a visitor-services assistant who led the unionization effort, said in a statement. “We realized we would have to band together to negotiate for better working conditions.” The workers’ drive to join Local 2110 coincided with that of workers at the Hispanic Society of America in New York; that museum has not yet issued a statement on the status of its negotiations.
The Whitney Museum of American Art (photo by Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons)
Employees at museums around the country have been mobilizing to unionize en masse for about two years, with high-profile examples at the New Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as well as the Philadelphia Museum, the MFA Boston, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. (Like the Whitney, MOCA also voluntarily recognized its union.)