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Petition Filed to Create First Union for Guggenheim Museum Staff

Category: Art & Culture,Arts & Design

A labor union has filed a petition to form what organizers said would be the first bargaining unit at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.

The petition was filed with the National Labor Relations Board last week by Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which is seeking to represent about 90 art installers and facilities workers at the museum.

“We respect the right of our employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union,” the Guggenheim said in a statement. “This matter is now pending with the National Labor Relations Board.”

The union filed its petition on behalf of about 10 full time engineers and maintenance mechanics who operate the Guggenheim’s heating and air conditioning systems and about 80 art installers including carpenters, framers, multimedia technicians, art handlers and others who set up and dismantle shows, said Andres Puerta, the local’s director of special projects.

The art installers are paid directly by the museum, Mr. Puerta said, but instead of having a fixed schedule are on call to work when they are needed.

The effort to form a union comes as increasing attention is being focused on the pay scales of workers at prestigious museums. Staff members at the Museum of Modern Art staged a walkout last summer during negotiations that ended with a new contract that included wage increases.

“They’re putting priceless artworks into our hands and they expect quality work,” said Eric Heist, an art handler at the Guggenheim. “But we’re still receiving the same wages that we got three years ago.”

Mr. Heist, who has worked at the Guggenheim on and off since the 1990s, said the museum’s starting wage for an art handler was roughly $25 an hour. He said some people at the Guggenheim have been asked to work seven days straight without overtime pay.

The Guggenheim did not respond to that assertion but it said that the workers contemplating creating a bargaining unit had, along with other museum staff, received a 2 percent wage increase in May, retroactive to March.

“The work culture of the Guggenheim is one of the museum’s distinguishing characteristics,” the museum said in a statement “and we recognize and appreciate the commitment and contributions of the talented staff who bring its mission to life every day.”

Mr. Puerta said hearing with the labor board, which oversees efforts by worker to organize into bargaining units, would take place Thursday unless the museum and the union were able to agree on details of a vote and other matters before then.

He said a response to the labor board had been made on behalf of the museum by Steven Swirsky, a lawyer with the firm Epstein Becker Green. Mr. Swirsky is identified on the firm’s website as having “devoted his practice almost exclusively to aiding employers in developing strategies to remain union-free.”

The Guggenheim said the museum “has used Epstein Becker Green as employment law counsel since 2017 and continues to work with the firm in this process.”

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