Workers at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City are making moves to unionize. According to the New York Times, Local 2110 UAW filed a union vote petition today on behalf of 130 employees, including full-time and part-time curators, conservators, educators, and visitor services representatives.
Natalya Swanson, a conservation fellow who has been involved in the organizing effort, cited job security, pay equity, and upward mobility as the main reasons for forming a union. As of September 2020, the museum had laid off 27 employees and furloughed a number of part-time staff making over $75,000 a year, according to a museum spokesperson.
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“A lot of us already felt that our jobs were precarious,” said Emma de Matteo, a worker in Visitor Experience and Engagement, in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. “During the pandemic, we saw colleagues laid off and furloughed and it really reinforced our sense of job insecurity. A union is absolutely necessary to protect our jobs and improve the basic terms of our employment.”
While the Brooklyn Museum is often lauded as a progressive institution, employing a staff that is approximately 51% BIPOC, some workers have spoken out against a starkly different reality behind closed doors. Amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer, dozens of current and former employees signed an open letter denouncing “the harm and daily mistreatment” of staff of color at the institution. Former workers told Hyperallergic that when they read the missive out loud during an all-staff Zoom meeting, museum director Anne Pasternak warned them not to leak the document to press. In interviews, they accused leadership of fostering a culture of retaliation and silencing.
Located in a predominantly Black neighborhood, the Brooklyn Museum has also been at the center of numerous protests related to social justice and racial equity. In 2018, during the run of the exhibition This Place, activists entered the museum and rewrote labels for photos of Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories to include their Arabic names. The action led to the creation of Decolonize This Place (DTP), a massive grassroots movement founded to expose art institutions’ ties to dirty money and their hoarding of looted artifacts, which has since led actions protesting Warren Kanders at the Whitney Museum and NYPD’s over-policing.
“Unionizing is an extension of our existing institutional commitment to nurturing a diverse community of talent,” said Akane Okoshi, a researcher at the museum. “Labor needs to be recognized as a core principle of social justice work.”
The union drive is the latest in a recent spate of collective bargaining campaigns at New York City organizations. Last week, workers at the Whitney Museum of American Art announced their intent to form a union, also with Local 2110 UAW, which represents employees at institutions across the country.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a spokesperson said, “The Brooklyn Museum respects the rights of our employees to consider and evaluate union representation and is committed to a cooperative, fair and respectful process in order to achieve the best outcome for our staff.”