Making Choices at MOMA

A Strike Divides the Staff at Museum

There is a wall of pain these days between workers at the Museum of Modern Art. A little more than half of 250 professional staff employees have been on strike since April 28, when they walked out amid deep concern over reductions to their health benefits and looming layoffs when the museum begins a huge expansion project next year.

The rest of the staff has continued to work, arriving early and leaving late to avoid the picket line and the catcalls and hoots from their striking colleagues.

As with most long-running strikes, positions have hardened and there is little talking between the sides. The last negotiating session was May 15, when the two bargaining teams sat in separate rooms until a mediator sent them home, saying they were so far apart there was little point in meeting. The union blamed management for that failure; management cited the union.

Outside MOMA: a 10-foot tall inflatable rat backs up a museum striker.
photo: Brian Finke
Outside MOMA: a 10-foot tall inflatable rat backs up a museum striker.

But the museum's dispute is unlike most strikes.

It involves white-collar employees, the workforce sector in which organized labor has long been weakest. At MOMA, moreover, most strikers are young, recent college graduates, many headed for professional careers in the arts, another group traditionally uninterested in unions.

Aside from a handful of veterans, it is the first experience for most with unions and picket lines.

"My family is all in medicine; no one was in a union," said picketer Charleen Alcid, 26, who has worked at the museum for 18 months.

It's different, too, because the museum is a so-called "open shop" where union membership in the 30-year-old Professional and Administrative Staff Association is optional.

When the union, now part of Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers (the same union represents staff here at the Voice), voted to strike, it did so knowing that a third of the workers weren't members and were likely to keep working.

Since the walkout, several union members have also crossed the line. Union leaders said management used threats. Museum officials have denied it.

Last Wednesday, it was the brick wall on West 54th Street that borders the museum's famed sculpture garden that separated the two sides.

In the garden, management threw a gala picnic for employees who have continued to work during the strike, sending clouds of barbecue smoke wafting over the wall into the street.

Outside, on the sidewalk, strikers held their own picnic on red-and-white-checkered plastic tablecloths. They ate sandwiches in between heckling those inside with ear-piercing blasts on metal whistles, clanging cowbells, and gravel-filled soda cans.

"You are lying down with dogs," shouted one striker over and over. "Enjoy your lunch, you cowards," yelled another.

The strikers placed their own sculpture, a 10-foot-tall inflated rubber rat of the sort that has been adopted as a mascot by the city's labor movement, up against the steel gate that normally lets passersby glimpse the Henry Moore works in the garden. Inside, management had erected screens to block the view.

Still, the picnic was an awkward, uneasy affair for most of those inside.

"It was very strange," said Charles Silver, 59, a film-department worker for 30 years, who broke with the union last year. "People were essentially trying to ignore the noise, but you couldn't."

"It was nice, but it was sad," said one woman who also crossed the picket line and asked not to be named. "I couldn't stay. I got food and went upstairs. I don't blame them for that [demonstration] at all. It made me sad being on the inside, so I can only imagine what it felt like on the outside.

"But in good conscience," she continued, "I don't feel they are out on strike for the right reasonsand [the union] hasn't demonstrated they deserve my support."

Silver, who helped found the union in 1971, said his decision to keep working was born of distrust of the current leadership. "I think it's an effort by the UAW to gain publicity and help them with their recruiting" said Silver.

Museum attorney Robert Batterman, with the firm of Proskauer Rose, said the strikers, despite their education, had been duped by the union.

"These are pretty unsophisticated people," said Batterman. "They are people who have read explanations of the issues and still don't understand what's being said to them. They just keep hearing it the way [union officials are] telling it to them, so they parrot it back."

On the other side of the wall, picketers said the strike has been wearing, and many acknowledged wrenching breaks with friends. But they said their reasons for striking were clear.

"I felt we had no choice," said Tom Griesel, a museum photographer since 1977. "Most of us accept lower salaries to do this work. I love the place. I love being part of something bigger than me, of putting on a show of beauty that people enjoy. It's not the money. The sacred cow is health coverage. I have a wife and two kids, eight and 10 years old. We count on that coverage."

Strikers and nonstrikers alike said that they took jobs at the museum knowing that they would earn less in salaries—which average about $28,000 a year—but that benefits are superior.

"When you start, the people in human resources tell you, 'The salaries aren't that great, but the benefits are outstanding,' " said striker Josiana Bianchi, who works in the education department.

Vacations start at four weeks and rise to six with seniority. There is an old-fashioned, defined-benefit pension plan, and health coverage is currently fully paid for by the employer.

"They are trying to shift the responsibility [for health benefits] onto us," said Sarah Landreth, an employee in the museum's development office.

Strikers also said they were worried about layoffs when the museum launches its $650 million expansion project next year, which will include the temporary closing of its Manhattan site.

"What [MOMA director] Glenn Lowry wants is a new museum with no union in it," said striker Cary Levine.

Also on the list of demands, said local president Maida Rosenstein, was the need to become an "agency shop," where union membership is optional, but dues mandatory. Such a setup is one step below a "closed" or "union shop," where all workers must join, but gives the union more clout.

"What the museum would like is to keep us a nice little unit doing 'courtesy bargaining,' " said Rosenstein.

Batterman said the museum, faced with rising costs, needed the right to change its health benefits plan, if necessary. But Batterman said the museum has offered the alternative of a new plan, administered jointly by the union and the museum. He said the museum has also offered severance pay and the right to return at the end of the construction project to those who are laid off.

The real stumbling block for the union, Batterman said, is the museum's "open shop" status. "My belief is that if we gave them an agency shop we would settle everything."

Striker Mary Corliss, who has worked at the museum since 1967 and said she had relied on the health plan through two bouts with cancer, disagreed. "This is not about a closed shop or agency shop," she said. "This is about maintaining a level of health care for people who make $28,000 a year."

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