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Guggenheim Bilbao. Photo: Naotake Murayama/Wikipedia Commons.
Guggenheim Bilbao. Photo: Naotake Murayama/Wikipedia Commons.

Guggenheim Bilbao Cleaners Protest Low Wages

Workers responsible for cleaning the Guggenheim Bilbao in collaboration with artist Lorenzo Bussi mounted a protest performance aimed at raising awareness about the minimal pay and poor working conditions to which they say they are subjected, Hyperallergic reports. The cleaners, more than three-quarters of whom are female, are contracted through the multinational company Ferrovial Services and are paid about $5.65 an hour to keep the $100 million Frank Gehry–designed museum spotless.

The performance, which took place this past Sunday, involved workers climbing the monumental staircase that leads to the limestone-and-titanium-clad structure one by one, together forming a line before the museum’s entrance. Remaining in place for more than an hour and staying far enough from each other that they did not impede visitors’ entry, the workers stood alternately facing the building and facing the steps. Each staff member wore a white T-shirt bearing the query “Is everyone’s work equally important?”

Bussi, who works under the name Art Builders Group and typically focuses his efforts on pointing up Italy’s lack of support for emerging artists, provided a statement accompanying the action, whose contents were in part gleaned from interviews with the protesting workers. It read in part, “Working as a cleaner in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao means earning €35.04 gross for 7 hours; it means having different shifts every day and working up to 51 hours a week instead of the 35 stated in the contract; it means skipping days off to cover all the shifts and not having enough time to rest.”

The query blazoned on the participating workers’ garments served as the action’s title and additionally echoed a line from Jenny Holzer’s 1977–79 “Truisms” series, for which she printed posters bearing various slogans and posted them in public places. The Bilbao action referenced the poster bearing the statement “Everyone’s work is equally important.”

Thirteen of the museum’s nineteen subcontracted cleaners have been on strike since June over the low wages and subpar working conditions. The workers are members of the Basque Workers’ Solidarity union. “Twenty-five percent of union dues go to ELA’s resistance fund,” said strike co-leader Carmen Casas Cárdenas.

“Because of this resistance fund, the strike can last for several months,” noted Bussi. “The museum has been silent; they’re waiting for them to give up and say, ‘Fine, we’ll go back to work.’ But I think the workers are very strong.”

Update: Guggenheim Bilbao shared this statement on December 15: 

Regarding the strike by 13 workers out of the 18 who provide cleaning services at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the Museum would like to clarify that this is part of a conflict that goes beyond the Museum itself, as it concerns a sectorial dispute—the office cleaning sector—in the entire province of Biscay that affects around 2,000 workers.

At present, and for the last few months, talks have been held regarding the new collective bargaining agreement.  The cleaning staff are not members of the Museum personnel, but are employees of Ferrovial Servicios, the company that was awarded the cleaning contract in a public bid. It is this firm that is negotiating with the union, not the Museum.

The Museum has learned through Ferrovial Servicios that their workers at the Museum have better conditions than those outlined in the current collective bargaining agreement. In this regard, the average gross pay of the 15 full-time cleaning staff at the Museum is EUR 20,500 per year for 35 hours per week; and all the workers also have two more weeks of vacation as compared to those established in the current bargaining agreement. It is worth mentioning that the Museum cleaning staff have security and stability in their jobs, and they have been working at the Museum for an average of 14 years; moreover, their contracts are subrogated, which guarantees their jobs.

Finally, the Museum wishes the dispute to be solved as soon as possible so as to go back to a normal situation.