Guggenheim Museum Workers Rally for Fair Contract in Lunch Break Action

Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blared outside the Guggenheim Museum in New York City today, April 19, as around 20 art handlers and facilities workers used their lunch break to rally for a second union contract.

Negotiations are entering their sixth month, and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 30 alleges that museum leadership has not made “significant progress” in bargaining. The previous contract expired in January.

Local 30, which also represents workers at MoMA PS1, parked its LED sign truck at the Upper East Side institution’s northwest corner. The vehicle displayed a headshot of Guggenheim CFO and COO Marcy Withington (referred to as “Martha,” which a worker said is her real name but “she does not like to highlight it.”) Rotating slogans appeared on the screens: “Supporting the arts means supporting cultural workers; Guggenheim Workers Deserve Good Jobs!”; “Martha, agree to family sustaining jobs for cultural workers and their families.”

Local 30 represents around 150 Guggenheim workers, the vast majority of whom are freelance contractors. The employees organized in 2019 and ratified their first contract in 2021. Two years later, they were joined by their newly unionized colleagues in United Auto Workers (UAW) 2110, which represents curators, registrars, front desk workers, and other employees at institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. (Lead Paper Specialist Liz Jaf, who’s worked at the Guggenheim for 28 years, explained that the Guggenheim’s workforce had initially wanted to create a wall-to-wall union, but the intricacies of contract work proved too complicated.)

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The Local 30 sign truck in front of the Guggenheim.

Brown told Hyperallergic that the union wants market rate wage adjustments, a 2.5% increase to retirement and healthcare benefits, tightened safety standards, and an orientation for new employees. He said most full-time workers earn salaries in the $70,000 range, “which is well behind the Whitney, MoMA, and The Met,” and contractors earn $35 an hour, a figure lower than comparable institutions rates for art handling, carpentry, woodworking, and facility engineering. The Guggenheim has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

“[The museum] functions as well as it does and looks as good as it does — in terms of the quality of the exhibitions, the maintenance of the building, of being able to fulfill the visions of the artists that are so important to the institution — because these people are, number one, committed,” Jaf told Hyperallergic. “And number two, they have such deep institutional knowledge for how this particular place works.”

Jaf, who sits on Local 30’s bargaining committee, spoke to a feeling of being “devalued” by leadership throughout the lengthy negotiation process. She also described an environment of unsustainable wages, shrinking exhibition timelines that put more and more pressure on staff, and the ever-present threat of layoffs.    

“The fact is, and this still stands, that when we first organized, it was to make the Guggenheim a sustainable to stay and work at this place,” Jaf said.

She pointed to the value of the collection and her appreciation for her workplace of almost 30 years. “We are very committed to the specific history of the Guggenheim Museum, and to find that it wasn’t sustainable to continue working here — to find that the institution didn’t listen to us then — a union was what we needed, so we brought it.”

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