Workers at a California Center for Artists With Disabilities Are Unionizing

OAKLAND, Calif. — As Creative Growth Art Center, one of the world’s largest and oldest independent centers for artists with disabilities, marked its 50th anniversary on Tuesday, April 2, its workers announced plans to unionize with AFSCME Council 57 as Creative Growth United.

Workers at the Oakland-based nonprofit delivered a letter to Interim Executive Director Tom di Maria and the Creative Growth Board of Trustees, as first reported by the Oaklandside, asking for voluntary union recognition and the commencement of contract negotiations since all 34 eligible workers have signed union cards. On Wednesday, Creative Growth spokesperson Ibby Sasso told Hyperallergic that the center is “in positive talks with the union to voluntarily accept.”

Creative Growth artists including Aurie Ramirez, William Tyler, and the late Judith Scott have had their artworks exhibited throughout North America and Europe, bringing the center prestige. Staff members say that while they value being a part of Creative Growth, such prestige is no replacement for fair wages, which is a major bargaining priority.

“There’s a prevalent dynamic where you’re supposed to accept the prestige of working at a well-known arts organization instead of a living wage,” said staff member Sam Lefebvre. “But you can’t eat prestige,” he added, echoing a popular art-world union refrain. (Lefebvre has contributed to Hyperallergic.)

The economic difficulties of working at Creative Growth, staff members say, start during the hiring process. Artist Facilitator Soph Alvarez said that based on what other workers told them, they felt they’d be unlikely to be hired if they didn’t volunteer first.

“Volunteers become substitutes, then become full-time employees,” Alvarez told Hyperallergic. “That’s often the tract Creative Growth uses so that’s what I did.” While volunteering at Creative Growth, Alvarez had to work full-time at another job to pay their bills.

Ariel Cooper said she started working at Creative Growth about two months before securing full-time employment. She was never interviewed for the job and instead took on several unpaid trial shifts, then worked as a substitute earning $19 an hour, 44 cents less than the city of Oakland’s hourly living wage in 2023, before landing her current role.

Cooper called the current hiring practices inaccessible for those who can’t afford to temporarily work for no or low pay. “It’s an amazing organization and people want to be part of it so badly,” said Cooper. “But many workers can’t get hired.”

Alvarez, Cooper, and Lefebvre, who also started as a substitute, have all been hired within the last year as artist facilitators who work one-on-one with artists by providing emotional and physical support. They make $25 an hour, but alleged that some recent artist facilitator hires with similar experience make less. 

“The starting pay for facilitators has been declining,” Lefebvre said. “None of us know why.”

Di Maria, Creative Growth’s spokesperson, did not answer specific questions. He responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiry with a statement that said reaching out to the union “reflects our commitment to fostering an open, respectful and supportive work environment” and that he “looks forward to a constructive exchange of ideas that benefit all Creative Growth community members.”

Creative Growth United plans to bargain for standardized pay along with standardized hours, as workers have faced unexpected hour cuts. The union is also asking for staff and artist participation in Creative Growth’s board, so those involved in the center’s day-to-day operations can have more influence on the nonprofit’s decision-making.

Staff members also plan to leverage the union to get Creative Growth on board with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. They’ve collaborated with workers at two other centers for artists with disabilities — the NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California, and Creativity Explored in San Francisco — to form Progressive Art Studio Staff for a Free Palestine, a coalition demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. The coalition has published a petition denouncing “the genocide of the Palestinian people,” which about 79% of Creative Growth’s workers have signed. 

Workers say they’ve asked Creative Growth’s leadership to join the boycott and announce support of a ceasefire, requests that have been declined. The union now plans to make joining the boycott a part of contract negotiations.

Creative Growth United has announced plans to host a support rally outside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this Saturday, April 6, the same day the museum will debut Creative Growth: The House That Art Built, an exhibition featuring works by a dozen of its artists.

Ultimately, workers say they want a more sustainable work environment so they can maintain the “ongoing loving relationships” they have with over 140 Creative Growth artists, in Cooper’s words. By improving working conditions through the union, Cooper noted, she “hopes to stay at Creative Growth forever.”

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