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OnlineMar 06, 2024

MASS MoCA Unionized Workers Embark on Indefinite Strike Over Wages

On March 6, unionized workers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) began a daily strike outside of its premises. Employees are dissatisfied with their wages, and following negotiations that began in October 2023, the museum and the union have not reached an agreement.

News by Shira Laucharoen

Image of MASS MoCA building in 1999 with clear blue sky.

Natalie Jeremijenko, "Tree Logic," 1999. SIx flame maple trees, eight thirty-five-foot telephone poles, stainless steel planters and armature, aircraft table, and drip irrigation system. Photo by Zoran Orlic courtesy MASS MoCA.

Much like the iconic upside-down trees that once graced a celebrated North Adams contemporary visual art museum’s campus, the status quo may be turned on its head this Wednesday. On March 6, unionized workers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) began a daily strike outside of its premises, according to the MASS MoCA Union Instagram account. Employees are dissatisfied with their wages, and following negotiations that began in October 2023, the museum and the union have not reached an agreement.

“That’s the crux of what’s on the table—we’re dealing with economics and wages. But the strike itself and the whole background is colored by the disrespect that our union members feel we’ve been treated with,” Chelsea Farrell, an organizer with Local 2110 United Auto Workers, the union chapter that represents MASS MoCA workers, said in an interview the night before the strike. She added, “Starting in October, we were very hopeful that we could avert a strike action and that it wouldn’t have to come to this. We tried hard—every tactic we could think of—to push the museum, but unfortunately, we’re here.”

Over half of the union’s membership earns $16.25 per hour, with full-time employees’ annual salaries averaging $43,600, according to the Instagram account. Workers are calling for an hourly minimum wage of $18.25 and a minimum salary increase of 4.5% this year, reported WBUR. MASS MoCA responded to these demands by proposing an hourly minimum wage of $17.25, with a 3.5% salary increase, claiming that this offer is “higher than any state-mandated minimum wage across the country,” according to an article by Hyperallergic. The union also noted that there has been an increase in higher-paid management positions at the museum, at the cost of unionized staff.

The cost of living has played a factor in the workers’ determination to fight for better wages. Rent in North Adams has risen over the years, and using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, a living wage for a childless, single adult living in Berkshire County is $21.83 an hour. Farrell added that housing instability has been a problem in the region, exacerbated by the conversion of homes to Airbnbs.

“Someone made the estimation that they couldn’t find a decent one-bedroom apartment for much less than $1,200 a month, maybe $900,” she said. “If you’re at that minimum rate, not including utilities—your heating bill, your groceries, your car—that’s the other reality.”

This is not the first time that MASS MoCA workers have gone on strike. In 2021, the union, which is composed of curators, educators, administrative staff, and other full- and part-time employees, was formed with the aim of addressing low pay and job insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following year, they planned a one-day strike and picket outside of the museum due to a lack of progress with contract negotiations. The museum and employees settled a first contract in November 2022 that allowed for wage increase negotiations beginning in October 2023, but since then, progress has been fraught and slow.

In recent years, East Coast museums have seen workers organize to call for more equitable working conditions. The Art Newspaper reported that in 2022, Museum of Fine Arts workers reached their first union contract, following eighteen months of negotiations. Their efforts resulted in the ensuring of double-digit wage and salary increases over the next three years. A Boston Art Review article, “When Workers Come A Knockin’: Cultural Institutions and the Fight for Unionization,” stated that over the past few years, campaigns have been held at the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the New Museum. Theoretically, museums should be places where the rights of employees are championed, argues Maida Rosenstein in the article. Rosenstein is the former president of Local 2110 United Auto Workers, which represented MFA workers.

“Workers have been really inspired by social justice movements, to also bring about equity in their own workplaces,” Rosenstein said in an interview with Boston Art Review in 2022. “And they see museums as institutions that should be standing up for the right thing.”

 

Shira Laucharoen

Contributor

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