Members of a union representing nearly 180 employees at the Whitney Museum of American Art voted by a 90 percent margin on Monday afternoon to ratify their first contract after a negotiation period during which employees demonstrated at exhibition openings and fund-raising galas to lure executives back to the bargaining table.
“It was such a long-fought battle,” said Erika Wentworth, a project manager for the Whitney’s graphic design programs.
Wentworth was also a member of the bargaining committee, which negotiated for more than a year. The Whitney union is part of Local 2110, a chapter of the United Automobile Workers union that represents more than 1,500 employees from nearly 20 cultural institutions.
She and three other employees said large pay raises were a significant victory in the contract, which will increase salaries by 30 percent, on average, with entry-level employees set to receive a greater raise, to $54,101 from $40,500. Employees will also receive a one-time bonus of $1,000 because the deal was ratified.
Additionally, hourly workers’ pay will increase to $24 per hour, from $17, over the next three and a half years, and temporary workers will be put on a preferential list for permanent jobs. The agreement also includes 27 provisions covering topics like health care, layoff protections and safety measures.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
“After negotiating in good faith for many months, we have finalized a contract that serves the best interests of our staff,” Ashley Reese, the Whitney’s director of communications, said. “We look forward to a longstanding and productive working relationship.”
Sandy LaPorte, a facilities supervisor, was in the bowels of the museum when his union voted to approve the contract. He stepped outside to speak on his phone as other workers continued sweeping the floors, installing art and overseeing construction on the Whitney’s eighth floor.
“Underrated, underappreciated — that’s us,” said LaPorte, who said the facilities department had been cut by nearly half in the five years since he joined the museum. “It was really important to me in the bargaining process that my department received some type of recognition through provisions for job safety and compensation.”
According to Ramsay Kolber, a curatorial research associate who served on the bargaining committee, negotiations were slow until one of the museum’s chief operating officers, Idehen Aruede, began working on the museum’s behalf.
“Once he came into negotiations,” Kolber said, “there was a shift in terms of tenor and pace of bargaining.”
Museums have experienced a steady increase in unionization over the past five years, and the thousands of pandemic layoffs in the arts sector further encouraged employees to form bargaining units. A vast majority of these unionization efforts have been successful, including those at cultural institutions like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Jewish Museum. However, the negotiating process is another hurdle.
“These contracts are taking a long time because the museums have not been easy to negotiate with,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, who added that the Whitney contract was one of the more lucrative deals in the chapter’s recent history. Her union chapter is also involved in negotiations with the Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and other arts groups.
“We hope that other employers that we are bargaining with will take a look at this contract,” Rosenstein said. “What I think is good about this is that the parties attempted to address pay rates and provide good increases across the board.”