The curated interiors of cultural institutions may not conjure an image of a unionized workforce. But museum workers increasingly are turning to labor unions as wages stagnate and job security remains tenuous, organizers and workers told Bloomberg Law.

Seventy-four workers at the New Museum, a modern art outpost on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, became the latest to turn to a union, voting Jan. 24 to affiliate with the United Auto Workers.

Only about 12.1 percent of all museum employees belong to a union and 12.6 percent are covered by some sort of labor contract, according to Bloomberg Law data.

More than 40 U.S. museums have unions, with Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance being the last to unionize before the New Museum, in May 2017. There are about 31,000 archivists, curators, and museum workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Other industries with highly educated workers—such as academia and journalism—already have seen a wave of unionization in recent years. Museum workers could be next.

“It’s supposed to be a privilege to work at an art museum,” United Auto Workers local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein told Bloomberg Law. But workers are frustrated with low wages, she said.

“I think there are going to be other workers in museums that will be interested in unionization,” she said. Local 2110 represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art, where employees ratified a new contract in August 2018.

But some worry that a museum is no place for a union. A New Museum spokesman said before the vote that the union bid there threatened “further stratification and division among our staff.”

“The New Museum is a relatively small institution with a strong mission—we have always worked closely and collaboratively,” he said. “We don’t believe unionization is the best way to preserve what is special about our culture or to advance change.”

The museum has since said it respects the new union and “will move forward in good faith.”

Hard Hats Not Required

Museums aren’t seen as union workplaces, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 526 President Jaclyn Kelly told Bloomberg Law. Local 526 represents workers at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

“People tend to think of a white guy in a hard hat,” she said, and that’s not the case. “We are working class and we have interests as a working class, and we can address them through unionization.”

Museum work also is perceived as an office job. But that’s a misconception. Museums are massive entities and can employ hundreds of people, some of whom may operate heavy machinery or work in restoration labs.

“People in the art field have this way of seeing themselves as being a bit unique, a little different,” Emily Hankle, Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers organizer, told Bloomberg Law. “But it’s no different, in a lot of ways, than any other work environment.”

The HUCTW represents about 70 workers at the Harvard Art Museums, as well as about 75 workers at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture.

Highly Educated, Underpaid

Low wages are particularly problematic when at least a bachelor’s degree is required for employment, Kelly said. Without a strong union contract, wages remain low, and only individuals coming from a wealthier economic background can afford the pay, she said.

The median wage for archivists, curators, and museum workers is $47,360, according to BLS.

At LA’s Museum of Tolerance, some workers were making as little as $12 an hour in 2017. Pay was the primary reason the workers organized, Erica Zeitlin, a communications officer with the employees’ union, told Bloomberg Law.

“In a city like Los Angeles, with living costs, those are poverty wages,” she said. “They just felt they were being taken advantage of.”

The employees’ first contract, ratified last year, raises those rates by several dollars over four years.

The median annual wage for union-eligible employees at the New Museum is $52,000, according to a museum spokesperson.

Museums workers are generally passionate about their jobs, perhaps leading them to accept positions with lower salaries in pursuit of the privilege of working with art, Hankle said.

“People are more likely to say yes to an opportunity despite the pay or benefits,” she said. “And I think eventually, it’s not sustainable.”

At nonunionized museums, employee attrition is common, but Rosenstein thinks that unions can step up to mitigate issues leading to turnover.

Bottom Up

Unionization is also a way to represent different voices in an industry tasked with informing the public, Kelly said.

“There’s a lot of chatter in our industry right now” about representation, diversity, income inequality, and privilege,” she said. Many in the museum industry are looking to their leaders to set an example, but workforces shouldn’t have to wait around.

“Those things are certainly fine, but I just hope that people in our industry understand that we don’t have to wait for the leaders in our industry to catch up” by negotiating good contracts, she said.

At MoMA, a union structure allows workers and leaders to shape the future mission of the institution, Rosenstein said.

“MoMa has an ability, through this union dialogue, to actually make its case not just over terms and conditions of employment, but over its mission,” she said.