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Employees of the New Museum in New York at a demonstration in the institution’s lobby on Friday, January 11. Photo: New Museum Union.
Employees of the New Museum in New York at a demonstration in the institution’s lobby on Friday, January 11. Photo: New Museum Union.

New Museum Pushes Back Against Staff’s Effort to Unionize

Earlier today, more than forty employees wearing T-shirts that read “We deserve a fair contract” gathered in the lobby of the New Museum in New York in a show of solidarity with their fellow colleagues who have taken steps to form a union. While the union’s organizing committee petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Friday, January 4, to schedule an election, the group didn’t make its efforts public until Thursday, after museum management pushed back.

The institution has hired the Kentucky-based consulting firm Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan (ANHS) to thwart the employees’ attempt to organize. According to its website, the firm offers union avoidance training and claims to have a 83 percent success rate with NLRB cases. “A union organizing campaign can be an incredibly divisive and destructive experience for your organization or business,” it reads. “When addressed early, organizing is avoidable. After all, you can’t lose a union election that doesn’t happen.”

Dana Kopel, a member of the union’s organizing committee and a senior editor and publications coordinator at the museum, told Lauren Cavalli of Artforum that organizers wanted to give the institution time to consider and respond to their decision to unionize. In an email sent to management on Friday, they asked the museum not to interfere with their right to organize. Since then, they’ve been disappointed with the institution’s course of action.

Kopel said that the institution is making it seem as if only a small group of radicals support the union. Several staffers have also suddenly been reclassified as supervisors by higher-ups, which is being perceived as a tactic to decrease the number of people eligible for the union’s bargaining unit of about seventy-four part-time and full-time employees. This group does not include museum security—who, due to the current legal precedent, must form their own union—or maintenance workers, who didn’t show interest in joining.

On Wednesday, January 9, the museum held two separate meetings with department heads and supervisors. As one of the employees now being called a supervisor by the institution, Kopel attended, along with about fifteen others and museum director Lisa Phillips, deputy director Karen Wong, and a consultant from ANHS. “We were told that the meeting was being held to offer a more ‘balanced view’ on being in a union and that it is ‘our duty to be loyal to the museum,’” Kopel said. “Then we were shown a really biased presentation featuring quotes, which conveyed only negative things about unions, including how a union ruined one family’s Thanksgiving dinner. We were also expected to pass on the information provided to our colleagues.”

Alicia Graziano, an individual giving and membership associate at the museum, told Artforum that she was also let down by the museum’s response to the employees’ plan to unionize, but has been inspired by how the staff has come together and shown an “overwhelming amount of enthusiasm and support.” “By forming the union, we’re looking out for our fellow employees and thinking about our future colleagues who will be the ones to move the museum forward,” she said.

The movement to unionize was kick-started a few months ago and emerged out of conversations that staff members had been having for some time. If they successfully establish NewMuU-UAW Local 2110, they hope to improve working conditions at the museum and to honor founding director Marcia Tucker’s wish to make the museum a “collaborative,” “self-critical,” and “transparent” organizational model.

A release issued by the organizing committee reads: “We have come together from across all the museum’s departments to collectively improve our conditions. Forming a union will enable us—as well as future New Museum employees—to effectively advocate for changes that will make the New Museum a more sustainable and equitable institution. We believe in the New Museum and its mission; we want it to succeed. But we also recognize a need for critical changes at this moment in the museum’s growth.”

The next step in the unionization process will be for museum management to meet with a union representative for negotiations before an election can be held. Staffers have asked for one on January 17, but they said it will most likely be postponed. While they wait for a vote to be scheduled, ANHS will continue its anti-union campaign. Yet, Graziano seemed unfazed by this.

“Standing up to the firm and standing up for each other is how we’ll get through this,” she said. “We will be able to weather whatever the museum throws at us because we really believe that this process will improve the institution and reflects its mission. Also, if we are able to set an example for other arts institutions and spark a change in the cultural landscape of New York that would be amazing. That’s why we’re doing this.”

The New Museum opted not to comment for this article.