Workers at New York’s Hispanic Society will go on strike just as museum completes six-year renovation

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As New York City’s Hispanic Society Museum and Library prepares to reopen next month its doors following a six-year closure of most of its Upper Manhattan campus, its unionised staff members have voted to strike starting on 27 March. The museum’s workers unionised in 2021. After a year of contract negotiations following the museum board’s decision to terminate the employee pension plan, staff cited unfairness and chronic non-transparency by the institution’s management as leaving them little option but to strike.

“We’re a small, dedicated staff that has worked under difficult physical conditions with constant staffing shortages,” Javier Milligan, a librarian at the Hispanic Society, said in a statement. “We’ve accepted lower wages than we could earn at other institutions because of the benefits. The contract they are offering makes our employment truly unsustainable.”

According to the union statement, the contract proposed by museum management requires employees to pay healthcare premiums and deductibles that were formerly covered by the institution, a change that wage increases will not offset. The union also alleges that management is attempting to remove positions from union eligibility by incorrectly listing positions as temporary, exacerbating understaffing issues.

On 3 February, staff outlined their concerns in an open letter to the society’s Board of Trustees, emphasising “risk to the collection”, inadequate resources and a failure to replace departing staff, leading to impossible workloads for remaining staff. The letter also described the working environment at the institution as “hostile, toxic and adversarial”, a by-product of the administration’s opacity.

“The administration’s decisions endanger its priceless treasures from daily handling to long-term planning. The administration has failed to replace key collections care staff such as curators, conservators, and art handlers, placing intolerable stress on the people who safeguard the collection,” Patrick Lenaghan, a curator who has worked at the Hispanic Society for 28 years, said in a statement. “The society is endangering its own valuable collection: We are severely understaffed and our incredible collection is in jeopardy because of a lack of proper safeguards”.

The Hispanic Society was founded in 1904 by philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington as the Spanish Museum of Art. Its scope has expanded somewhat since to focus on the creative production of Spain, Portugal, Latin America and the Philippines. A self-described “champion of Spain in America”, Huntington amassed a world-class collection of Latinx artworks unparalleled within the United States.

The institution’s campus, sited on the edge of the Washington Heights neighbourhood, has been closed to the public since 2017 for “extensive renovations” and is scheduled to reopen on 6 April. How the strike will affect the planned reopening remains to be seen. A spokesperson for the Hispanic Society did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Employees of the Hispanic Society formed a union (like many at New York cultural institutions, with Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers) in 2021 as staff at many major US museums voted overwhelmingly to do the same, citing longstanding problems in the sector that had been exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many new unions have seen negotiations over their first contracts drag on for months or even years, though that has rarely resulted in workers going on strike. Notably, employees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art went on strike last autumn for three weeks after negotiations over their first contract reached an impasse.

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