Guggenheim Workers Vote to Join a Union, the Museum’s First

Workers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum voted Thursday night to join Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which will be the first organized bargaining unit at the institution.

The new union, which was approved by a vote of 57-20, will represent about 140 employees at the museum, including full time engineers and maintenance mechanics who operate the Guggenheim’s heating and air conditioning systems, as well as full-time and temporary employees with titles like art handler, cabinetmaker and fabricator, who install and take down exhibits.

Guggenheim officials had hoped to dissuade workers from joining the union.

Local 30 officials said Richard Armstrong, the museum’s director, sent workers an email earlier this week in which he said he believed a union would inject divisiveness “on a daily basis” into the institution.

The formation of a Guggenheim union comes as increasing attention is being focused on the pay scales of workers at prestigious cultural institutions. Some staff members at the Museum of Modern Art walked out last summer during labor negotiations that ended with a new contract that included wage increases.

Earlier this year, workers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the New Museum voted to be represented by United Auto Workers Local 2110.

“There are millions and millions of dollars flowing through the Guggenheim,” said Andres Puerta, Local 30’s director of special projects. “The workers weren’t a priority but now we’re going to make them a priority.”

A spokeswoman for the Guggenheim, Sarah Eaton, said that 77 out of 141 eligible “full-time, regular part-time, and on-call employees” had voted.

“The Guggenheim respects the right of employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union and encouraged all eligible employees to vote,” Ms. Eaton wrote in an email message. “The Museum is committed to maintaining a fair, respectful, and positive work environment for all Guggenheim employees, whether or not they chose to be represented by a union.”

The process to form a bargaining unit began earlier this month when Local 30 filed a petition to organize workers with the National Labor Relations Board. The museum’s response to the petition, according to the union, was filed by a lawyer for Epstein Becker Green, Steven Swirsky, who is identified on the firm’s website as having “devoted his practice almost exclusively to aiding employers in developing strategies to remain union-free.”

Eric Heist, an art handler who was part of the unionization effort, said he was surprised by what he perceived as the vehemence of the museum’s anti-union stance.

“The pushback by the Guggenheim was a surprise to me,” he said. “I thought they had seen this coming.”

In his email message, Mr. Armstrong wrote that he understood that workers were making decisions rooted in the economic realities they face.

But he said that the museum’s revenue is below that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“We provide very high-quality exhibitions, equal to or better than these other museums,” he said, “but in terms of financial resources we cannot compete.”

“We are committed to listening to your concerns,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “Adding a third party into the mix will not strengthen that commitment.”

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