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Imminent Union Vote Sparks Debate at Manhattan’s New Museum

Imminent Union Vote Sparks Debate at Manhattan’s New Museum


The New Museum of Contemporary Art has long identified the need for diversity and free expression as core values, often programming events that reflect that mission.

So some museum employees, as well as artists whose work has appeared there, said they were surprised when, upon learning that staff members were working to form a union, the museum hired a consulting firm that markets itself as a “team of experienced union avoidance consultants.”

The firm, Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, based in Kentucky, says on its website, “We can help you quickly convince your employees to vote against the union, because it is a bad thing for them.”

The employees announced their intentions on Jan. 10 and are to vote Thursday on a proposal to join Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers. Organizers said they expected the totals to be tabulated that day. Those voting include art handlers, associate curators, staff members of the book and gift shop and others.

A member of the firm met earlier this month with some museum staff members who could be eligible to join the union.

“He pushed the idea that a union is an outside force,” Dana Kopel, a senior editor and publications coordinator at the museum, said. “That union representation would make our work harder or more complicated.”

Martha Rosler, a photographer and video artist, was among about 50 people who signed an open letter saying they were troubled by the decision to “hire an anti-union firm to sow fear and hostility and to misinform both management and staff about the role of unions in the workplace.” Her 30-year retrospective appeared at the New Museum and the International Center for Photography in 2000.

“When workers tell you they need a union, then they need a union,” Ms. Rosler said by telephone. “There is no question that the labor movement is what brought us to whatever good spaces we’ve been brought to socially.”

The museum’s director, Lisa Phillips, declined a request to be interviewed.

In a statement on Wednesday the museum said, “We fully respect our employees’ right to self-organize, and we will respect whatever decision they make.”

“We don’t believe unionization is the best way to preserve what is special about our culture or advance change,” the statement said, describing the New Museum as a relatively small institution where staff members are used to working closely and collaboratively.

The statement said the museum had hired Adams Nash for “an initial consult” to provide information on the unionization process, adding that some employees had expressed interest in joining a bargaining unit, while others were not interested or unsure. The statement said that now that the information has been provided, the museum no longer employs the firm.

The United Auto Workers already represents employees at the Museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the New-York Historical Society.

Employees who support a union at the New Museum said it is needed to ensure that they receive competitive salaries and have clear roles going forward as the institution carries out a planned $85-million expansion. Organizers said they have identified 74 museum employees who will form a bargaining unit. The museum has contested some of those selections.

Ms. Kopel said some museum employees earn as little as $35,000 a year to start. She said the museum told employees that the median income for the staff members contemplating joining a union was $52,000, and that $51,000 is considered a living wage. The New Museum spokesman confirmed in an email that $52,000 is the median income for the workers the museum says are eligible to be in a union.

The New Museum was founded in 1977 by a curator, Marcia Tucker, as a place to present, study and interpret contemporary works. Known for an open-minded approach to art and public dialogue, the museum says on its website: “We embrace difference, debate, and multiple viewpoints regardless of race, gender, class, or creed.”

Museum employees cited the institution’s reputation and history in their initial announcement that they wanted to form a union. Ms. Tucker had “envisioned an institution that did away with hierarchies — not only in the art exhibited, but in the structure of the Museum itself,” the announcement said.

It went on to ask that the museum’s dedication to diversity and progress “be mirrored in the Museum’s working conditions, hiring practices, wages and benefits.”

An exhibition coming next month typifies the museum’s approach. It will present a survey by the artist Nari Ward, whose work reflects on the effects of gentrification and on what the museum terms “the increasingly fractured state of democracy in the United States.”

Ms. Kopel said that during a staff meeting on Wednesday morning several museum leaders, including Ms. Phillips, cautioned workers against voting in favor of the union. Ms. Phillips told employees that forming a union “could cause irreparable damage,” Ms. Kopel said.



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