(Photo: Gary Ku via Wiki Commons)

The New Museum opened its doors last week for the first time since March. And as the New Museum’s employees go back to work, so will their union—or at least what’s left of it.

In two rounds of layoffs made since the coronavirus outbreak—one in April and another in June—the Bowery art museum let go 25 employees, citing a 30 percent shortfall in its budget. Most of those laid off were union members, and according to the union, this was not a coincidence. They say the institution took advantage of COVID-19 cutbacks to weaken the union, and they filed charges last month to the National Labor Review Board to that effect.

“They got rid of a vast majority of the outspoken union supporters, including our entire steward committee,” said Dana Kopel, who was senior editor and publications coordinator and the unit chair of the union until she was laid off in June. 

“The layoffs really targeted the most precarious and lowest-paid workers,” she added. Beyond staff like Kopel, this included part-time workers and those working in visitor services and other front-facing positions, who—due to longstanding racial disparities in New York’s cultural institutions—made up most of the museum’s workers of color, says Kopel.

When contacted by Bedford + Bowery, a spokesperson for the New Museum did not comment directly on the union charges, saying in a statement, “In the face of extreme financial hardship, the New Museum worked hard to limit layoffs and to preserve as many positions as possible. The layoffs were made across every department and at every staff level, from entry level to middle management to executive level, including both union and non-union staff members.”

Kopel and other union members say that the New Museum’s leadership has shown hostility toward the union since they began to organize in 2019. “I think they took it personally,” she said. As the movement to unionize took hold, the museum responded by hiring Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, a consulting firm that specializes in “union avoidance.”

(Andrawaag via Wiki Commons)

During the initial negotiations to unionize, said Kopel, workers faced both calculated anti-union measures—such as attempting to miscategorize workers as supervisors to limit membership—and personal pressure from management. Some supervisors made implications that unionizing would damage members’ professional prospects, said Gabe Gordon, who worked on the museum’s Ideas City program before being laid off in April. “Part of the language that was projected toward us was, You guys are going to ruin your careers by doing this,” recalled Gordon. “This is a bad look and is not the way you succeed in here.” Some workers quit as a result, according to Kopel. “One of the organizers, her boss refused to speak to her for a week, even about work she needed to get done,” she said.

The New Museum’s statement to Bedford + Bowery rejected the idea that the museum pushed back on unionization efforts: “When we learned early last year that a cohort of staff wanted to unionize, and shortly thereafter recognized that team members were in favor of it, we fully supported their right to organize, and mutually negotiated — quite quickly — a CBA that both sides agreed to in October 2019. We have honored the agreement, and during the pandemic have exceeded its provisions.”

But the union claims that when the museum needed to find places to cut the budget, management knew where to look. “I think it’s fair to say that the museum probably was grateful to have the lockdown as a moment to get rid of this broad base of dissent and advocacy for greater rights and pay in the workplace,” said Gordon.

This attitude is common at prominent cultural institutions like the New Museum, added Gordon. “Starting salaries are low, but you’re made to feel like you should be grateful for getting in the door because thousands of other people would be dying to be in your position,” he said. “At this point, those jobs have not only been decimated, but it was also proven at the end that those were always disposable roles in the eyes of the institution.”

The union also claims that the museum purposefully withheld information about its plans and finances under coronavirus that they would have needed to bargain effectively. “Up until the point when they announced the museum’s reopening, basically they gave us nothing,” Kopel said, adding that management would stonewall the union at meetings. “They would say, ‘We have no plans,’ or ‘We have so many plans that there is no plan,’” she recalled. “And then [New Museum director] Lisa Phillips would send out an email to all staff a few days later with more information than we’ve been given in the evening meetings.”

Once the government started issuing PPP loans, the union requested information on whether the museum had applied for them or received them. The museum refused to reply. The union had to find out from reading the news that the New Museum had received between $1 million and $2 million, and they never heard how they were used. “We don’t know where that money went,” said Kopel.

No executives were laid off in the museum’s coronavirus cutbacks, but, like many of the city’s cultural institutions, management did receive cuts in their salaries. Senior staff saw reductions of 10 to 20 percent, while director Lisa Phillips took a 30 percent cut until June 2021. Still, that brings her down to about $500,000 per year, a relatively large chunk of the budget compared to other museum directors’ salaries

Kopel dismisses the pay cuts as symbolic: “It makes them look good while maintaining their power and extreme wealth.” Kopel contrasted the cuts with the New Museum’s starting full-time salary of $46,000 per year, which they fought to raise from $40,000. More substantial pay cuts would have allowed them to keep more low-level and part-time workers on payroll, she said.

“I do appreciate executives like Lisa Phillips taking a pay cut. That’s not something mandatory for them,” said Gordon. But as layoffs were apparently necessary despite the pay cuts, he said that he hopes management will rethink how it cuts the budget. “If you’re having trouble operating because you’re making too much money, maybe that means you were always making too much money?”

As part of its reopening plan, the New Museum announced that it will be providing healthcare for everyone who works over 20 hours per week. While this is good news, said Kopel, it was also a union demand that the museum had long refused. “It’s hard to see something we advocated so much for and were so intensely shut down and basically shamed for bringing up now just being presented as an act of benevolence from the museum out of nowhere,” she said.

Even though he lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic, Gordon said he is made hopeful by what feels like a new level of scrutiny and activism within the city’s cultural institutions. “That kind of silent respectability, being subservient and waiting your turn in a system that never really cared about you in the first place, is honestly out the window,” he said. There’s a question facing workers, management, and even patrons, he added: “It’s not only, how do we go back to where it was? It’s, what do we actually want these places to do and stand for, moving forward?”