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The Wexner Center for the Arts. Photo: RightCowLeftCoast/Wikipedia Commons.
The Wexner Center for the Arts. Photo: RightCowLeftCoast/Wikipedia Commons.

Workers at Wexner Center for the Arts Move to Unionize

Employees of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus have revealed plans to unionize, the Columbus Dispatch reports. The move comes on the heels of similar efforts by staff at arts institutions across the country and contrasts with plummeting union membership nationwide, which last year stood at just 10.3 percent, according to the US Department of Labor.

Organizing under the banner of Wex Workers United, staff at the museum including curators, educators, art handlers, and those working in front-facing positions, such as bookstore, ticketing, and visitor-experience staff, on March 4 delivered a letter to Wexner and OSU leadership asking to be recognized in affiliation with AFSCME Ohio Council 8. “We believe our endeavor is inextricably linked to the center’s stated mission and ongoing commitment to social justice and institutional transformation,” read the missive in part. “These goals can only be realized through deep structural change.”

The concerns of the organizing workers reflect those of the staffs of many US museums and include low pay, precarious hours, and the assignment of extra work duties unattended by commensurate increases in pay. Unionizing staff additionally pointed to health and safety concerns, noting that a number of the lowest-paid front-facing workers had been asked to return as the Wexner opened mid-pandemic and before the advent of any Covid-19 vaccine. Tasked with greeting the public, many of these employees found themselves in the uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous situation of having to remind visitors to wear masks.

“Staff at the Wex have individually raised our voices to articulate concerns about inequities and the health of those of us in public-facing roles at the Wex,” noted Wexner Center bookstore manager Matt Reber in a statement. “The responses have left us feeling isolated and unsupported.”

“A union helps us all in the end but is especially vital for the most vulnerable of us—the underpaid, the front-facing workers, and multiply marginalized staff members,” said learning and public practice programs coordinator Jo Snyder in a statement. “Leadership, policies, and benefits can all change without worker input, leaving staff to deal with the fallout. A union doesn’t just create solidarity among staff; it gives us consistency, whatever else might happen.”

Wexner interim codirectors Kelly Stevelt and Megan Cavanaugh on March 7 issued a brief acknowledgment, stating, “We greatly value our employees and appreciate all they do to support the Wexner Center for the Arts and our mission. We have no further comment at this time.”

Among the institutions whose staff have unionized in recent years are those at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Brooklyn Museum, New Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, all in New York; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.