Workers at the Hispanic Society Museum Have Voted to Strike Following Stalled Negotiations for a Union Contract

The museum's staff first filed their intention to unionize in May 2021.

The Hispanic Society of America building on the Audubon Terrace in Washington Heights, New York. Photo by Asaavedra32, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

After more than a year of negotiations for a union contract, workers at New York’s Hispanic Society Museum and Library have authorized a strike.

The move comes on the eve of the reopening of the museum’s main building in Washington Heights, which has been closed for renovations since January 2017. Since then, the museum has been hosting offsite exhibitions, like the Joaquín Sorolla show currently on view at New York’s National Arts Club. (A new basement gallery at the society’s home at the Audubon Terrace museum complex also opened in 2021.)

The museum’s current contract offer would involve staff covering their own healthcare premiums and deductibles—costs that the museum previously paid. According to the union, proposed salary increases will not be enough to make up for the cost of this loss of benefits.

“The Hispanic Society’s offer to us is unfair. We’re a small, dedicated staff that has worked under difficult physical conditions with constant staffing shortages,” Hispanic Society librarian Javier Milligan 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.”

The Hispanic Society Museum and Library, New York. Photo courtesy of the Hispanic Society Museum and Library, New York.

The Hispanic Society Museum and Library, New York. Photo courtesy of the Hispanic Society Museum and Library, New York.

A Hispanic Society presented its most recent contract offer to the union bargaining committee on March 3, and only learned of the planned strike from media reports, according to museum representatives.

“While we have come to an agreement on most items, we are still working to come to a consensus regarding medical benefits,” the museum wrote in a statement. In the latest proposal, “employees would be asked to cover between 2.5 percent and 12.5 percent of the premium, based on income. The union insists that the Society pay 100 percent of the costs of healthcare premiums and deductibles. This union has contracts with other museums in the city where employees contribute towards the cost of medical coverage.”

The current contract would put minimum union salaries between $52,000 and $95,000, depending on the position, with $4,000 signing bonuses. Members would receive retroactive wage increases of 5 percent with guaranteed future wage increases and 15 days PTO, plus up to five weeks paid vacation based on seniority.

In addition, the Hispanic Society agreed to guarantee minimum salaries for all union positions, ranging from a minimum salary of, depending on the salary grade of the position, and on par with other museums in the city.

"Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh" at the Hispanic Society of America. Photo by Alfonso Lozano, courtesy of the Hispanic Society of America.

“Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh,” the first exhibition on site at the Hispanic Society of America since 2016, in the museum’s new basement gallery in 2021. Photo by Alfonso Lozano, courtesy of the Hispanic Society of America.

The Hispanic Society’s unionization effort started after the museum board terminated pension plan for workers, who had not received raises in a year. Staff filed a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board in May 2021, joining the Technical, Office, and Professional Union, Local 2110, part of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union.

UAW has long represented New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the New-York Historical Society, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and its ranks have swelled in recent years as more institutions have joined the burgeoning unionization movement among museum workers.

Last June, workers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, voted to ratify their first union contract with Local 2110, after a nearly three-year unionization effort that included a one-day strike. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it took 19 days of striking to reach an agreement on a contract last October, with workers joining the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art filed with the labor board the same month as the Hispanic Society, and finally approved a contract with Local 2110 earlier this month. But negotiations have stalled up in Washington Heights, with union members accusing the museum leadership of trying to reduce the size of the bargaining unit by misclassifying some workers as temporary or subcontracting the roles. The union has filed multiple charges of unfair labor practice against the museum, which has reportedly campaigned against the union.

Guests attend "A Night In the Heights" at the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York in 2021. Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImag for Getty Images.

Guests attend “A Night In the Heights” at the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York in 2021. Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImag for Getty Images.

“From the onset of our organizing to now, the HSA fought our unionization, using intimidation of individuals, holding ‘captive audience’ meetings and engaging in hardball bargaining,” John O’Neill, the society’s curator of manuscripts and rare books, said in a statement.

“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,” added curator Patrick Lenaghan, who has worked at the museum for 28 years. “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.”

Last month, union members sent a letter to the board—which includes Frank Lorenzo, a former airline manager known as a union buster—listing their concerns for the collection during the extended closure, with shifting reopening dates making it impossible for staff to plan a longterm exhibition calendar.

Since that time, the reopening for the main building has been set for April 6, though it has not yet been announced on the museum website.

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