As Nonprofit Workers Push for Representation, Brooklyn Museum Staffers Have Voted to Unionize by an Overwhelming Margin

The vote passed with a 96 percent approval rate.

Exterior of the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Jonathan Dorado.
Exterior of the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Jonathan Dorado.

Staffers at the Brooklyn Museum have voted overwhelmingly to unionize as they look to affiliate themselves with the Technical, Office, and Professional Union, Local 2110, part of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union.

Ninety-six percent of the proposed bargaining unit of 110 conservators, curators, events organizers, and front-line workers, among others, voted in favor of the move in a referendum held on August 16, with 34 eligible members abstaining.

“We see many advantages to having a more democratic voice within the institution,” Natalya Swanson, a museum conservator and union organizer, told the Brooklyn Paper. “I think that the idea of collectively bargaining is of interest for reasons like clear paths for promotion, pay equity, job security, retaining the things we like about our workplace, creating minimum standards in general.”

“Above all, we are committed to supporting our staff and have respected their right to organize. We remain committed to working with the union moving forward,” a museum representative told Artnet News.

Staff volunteers at Brooklyn Museum's weekly food distribution, organized in partnership with the Campaign Against Hunger. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Staff volunteers at Brooklyn Museum’s weekly food distribution, organized in partnership with the Campaign Against Hunger. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

The museum is no stranger to unions, as its security, operations, maintenance, and administrative staff are already represented by the District Council 37 Local 1502. But UAW is increasingly become the union of choice for New York museum workers.

Staff at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the New-York Historical Society have been part of UAW since the 1970s, while the Bronx Museum of the Arts joined in 2005. The union’s ranks of New York institutions has swelled in recent years, with the Tenement Museum and the New Museum joining in 2019 and the Shed following in early 2020.

As lockdown restrictions reduced museum income to a trickle last year, many institutions resorted to layoffs. (The Brooklyn Museum was among them, with 29 workers let go last June.)

Unionization has become increasingly attractive to employees looking to protect their jobs during uncertain times. The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Hispanic Society of America both petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to unionize under UAW in May, just weeks before the Brooklyn Museum did the same. (The Whitney agreed to recognize the union, and the vote to organize passed on August 2.)

After Guggenheim Museum maintenance workers and art handlers joined the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 30 in 2019, the museum’s curators petitioned to organize under UAW late last month. The nonprofit Studio in a School also joined UAW this year.

Outside New York, UAW’s new museum members include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams,

“The push [for museums to unionize] began before the pandemic,” Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110, told Artnet News. “The pandemic exacerbated the situation with many museum workers seeing colleagues laid off or furloughed. Also, I think many museum workers were inspired by the movement for racial justice, seeing workplace equality and rights as a necessary component of the declaration by many museums of their intention to change and be responsive to the movement.”

The most consistent issue driving unionization efforts has been low pay, particularly for employees in visitor-facing roles. Those positions are most often filled by employees of color, while high-paying management jobs are typically held by white staffers.

Following the successful union vote, the Brooklyn Museum and the union will now begin contract negotiations.


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