Unionization efforts at arts institutions nationwide have seen a significant upwelling in recent years, as pressure from COVID-related mass layoffs and pay cuts pushed worker unease to the surface. Today, November 17, union members at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston staged a strike in protest of stagnant wages and a lack of meaningful job security measures. About 200 museum workers equipped with signs picketed at 8:30am in front of the museum at 465 Huntington Ave, as passing cars honked in support.
“For me, personally, this strike is very cathartic,” said Eve Mayberger, assistant objects conservator at MFA and an elected member of the union’s bargaining committee. “For the past 18 months, many of us have been working in isolation, and the ability to have these conversations with colleagues has been one of the best things.”
Last November, staff at MFA Boston voted by an overwhelming majority to unionize with the UAW Local 2110, known for working with art institutions like the Museum of Modern Art. Members voted in support of fair pay across museum departments and to bargain for benefits and workplace rights.
According to union members, museum leadership has stalled on delivering meaningful salary increases and layoff protections for workers, with some reported to earn less than $26,000 annually — $13,000 below the baseline living wage in Boston. Hyperallergic spoke with Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein on negotiation efforts with MFA.
“MFA’s overriding approach in their negotiations seems to be agreeing to a contract where nothing changes,” Rosenstein said. “You don’t vote for a union by 90% in order to keep the status quo. People want to see a change in the way the museum treats them as staff.”
The members on strike included curators, conservators, librarians, and educational staff. Although no interactions occurred between museum administration and strikers, Rosenstein reported that the museum shut down staff email accounts for the day. Strikers carried picket signs bearing slogans like “ancient art not ancient wages” and “starving artists work here.”
Live music and artmaking was included in the day’s actions, and a striker shouldering a tuba emblazoned with “MFA UNION” was spotted on the picket line. “Get up, get down! Boston is a union town,” strikers and local UAW supporters alike chanted in unison as they walked down the avenue facing the museum’s entrance. “We are looking at this being a very joyful event,” Mayberger said.
While today’s strike was prompted by museum leadership’s insufficient response to union demands, the bargaining committee has also delayed formal response to the museum’s proposal for several weeks.
“Bargaining depends upon continuous dialogue,” wrote Karen Frascona, MFA’s public relations director, in an email to Hyperallergic. “Our hope is that the union will respond to our last offer formally and in good faith, communicating their needs and expectations, so that we can get closer to an equitable and sustainable agreement that works for all parties.”
But the strikers say their delayed response, and subsequent strike, is because the museum has yet to address structural changes proposed by the bargaining committee. For Mayberger, the one-day strike was an effort to call attention to the deep-seated systemic structures in place that initially permitted the allotment of low wages.
“We worked on crafting a proposal that would ensure a more equitable and transparent compensation structure.” Mayberger told Hyperallergic. “It took four months for the museum to respond, and when they did, we felt the numbers they provided were insufficient and failed to address many of the systemic changes that would help prevent [MFA] from getting into this situation again.”
In a statement issued Friday, the MFA declared its commitment to “staying at the bargaining table to create an equitable and sustainable outcome.”
Initial collective bargaining efforts are notoriously drawn-out. Ideally, negotiations between the committee and leadership end in a mutually agreed upon contract for the membership as a whole, but according to a press release issued by MFA union, staff wages have been frozen since early 2020 and salary increases are not guaranteed until 2024. Besides salary, some of the union’s primary concerns include layoff protections, worker health and safety, and union visitation rights. According to Mayberger, the museum has delayed taking action on these matters.
“The museum set the tone early on, making us negotiate on things that other institutions hadn’t made [their members] negotiate,” Mayberger said. “This set a precedent for slowing the process down and not always being the most responsive to our proposals.”
While the pandemic has laid bare inequitable pay and working conditions across sectors, Rosenstein maintained that unionization efforts have been on the rise since before the pandemic. Conversations with MFA workers and UAW Local 2110 began in summer 2019, and while the pandemic delayed union voting in spring 2020, it only further motivated workers to take action.
The collective upheaval generated by the Black Lives Matter movement last summer fortified labor efforts as national attention shifted toward fair compensation for people of color. Now more than ever, workplaces champion diversity and inclusion, but labor rights advocates have been increasingly critical of perfunctory calls for representation without the backing of meaningful action to fairly compensate workers and ensure their protection.
“Many workers were upset by diversity issues in museums and made the connection with wage inequality,” said Rosenstein. “People raise this issue constantly; equity and inclusion must also include fair working conditions. Museums can’t just say, ‘We’re going to [increase diversity]’ while leaving workers’ needs out of the picture.”
Today’s strike was an attempt to center labor as the museum’s lifeforce. For Rosenstein, the museum’s approach to negotiations signals misaligned priorities and attitudes toward the workers who are most critical to daily operations.
“These [workers] are very serious about the museum’s mission, the collections they handle, and the exhibitions they are involved in,” she said. “MFA staff feel very deeply about their work and they want to be recognized for their contributions.”