‘You can’t pay rent with prestige’: as contract negotiations drag on, unionised Guggenheim workers rally at exhibition openings

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On Thursday night (30 March), a line of around 200 people including museum members, donors and trustees snaked around the perimeter of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York for the VIP opening of new exhibitions by installation artist Sarah Sze and Gego, the late Venezuelan Modernist. While they waited, patrons were treated to a different exhibit: around 30 members of the Guggenheim workers’ union brandishing signs and handing out leaflets to raise awareness of their ongoing contract negotiations with museum leadership.

“We are here because we want to raise awareness among the public and the visitors, and especially the arts community about what’s going on,” said Maida Rosenstein, director of organising for United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, of which the Guggenheim union is a part. “We’re going to continue to make ourselves heard until we get a fair contract.”

The Guggenheim’s union, which represents employees across sectors including curatorial, conservation and education, returned Friday (31 March) morning to leaflet outside the press previews for Sze and Gego’s exhibitions (which open to the public today).  Rosemary Taylor, a member of the Guggenheim bargaining committee, described the mood Thursday night as “very supportive”.  She added, “The public is asking questions and seems happy to support workers. They want to know more about what we’re doing out here.”

“We are fighting for our first contract. We have been in negotiations for a little over a year,” said Nicolette Zoran, a member of the bargaining committee and visitor experience manager at the Guggenheim. “Management keeps coming to us with low-ball offers on wages, most importantly. You can’t pay rent with prestige.”

Unionised Guggenheim workers hand out leaflets to visitors waiting to enter exhibition openings on 30 March Photo courtesy Rosemary Taylor/United Auto Workers

Formed in 2021, the UAW Local 2110 union represents about 140 workers across the Guggenheim. The contract currently on offer from the museum’s administration would be good for four years and provides for a total of 9.75% in wage increases. The union is asking for a minimum increase of 16.5% over 4 years as well as an increase in wages for front-of-house staff and theatre technicians, as well as extending unionised workers’ protections to contract and project employees.

“The Guggenheim has been in negotiations now for over a year, and the Guggenheim really has a substandard wage proposal on the table,” Rosenstein said. “They’re offering very low increases—way, way, below the cost of living, below what we were able to negotiate at the Whitney and even much smaller institutions. And it does not cut it. People unionised for a reason. They wanted to address this and we need the museum to do it.”

This week’s actions at the Guggenheim follow the ratification earlier this month of unionised Whitney Museum employees’ first contract. That contract included a number of pay increases, including 15% across the board and a new minimum wage of $22 an hour for non-salaried workers retroactive to 1 January 2023. Unionised Guggenheim workers hope they can build on their crosstown colleagues’ victories and secure their own first contract.

“The Guggenheim is at the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith towards a contract with Local 2110,” a Guggenheim spokesperson said. “ We are committed to maintaining a respectful and positive work environment for all members of the Guggenheim’s exceptional staff.”

Engineering and facilities professionals and art services, preparation and fabrication specialists at the Guggenheim also organised a union in 2021, which is part of the IUOE (International Union of Operating Engineers) Local 30, which includes 22 full-time employees and 145 part-time workers at the museum.

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