By Jeffrey Harrell
It wasn’t art that drew a crowd outside MoMA PS1 in Long Island City this time.
Hardscrabble union members wearing leather jackets, emblazoned with the International Union of Operating Engineers insignia, gathered together Nov. 18 with smartly dressed art installers beneath a giant inflatable rat — drawing nervous laughter from museum-goers, some of whom thought it was part of an exhibit.
But the rat wasn’t part of an installation; it was a message of defiance to management.
The protesters are all members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 30, and they convened to demand higher wages for art installers and the maintenance crew of MoMA PS1. The workers at the satellite campus of the Museum of Modern Art’s main building in Manhattan are renegotiating their contract with management and are demanding higher pay.
Tensions have been rising over the last few years as the museum has hired multiple contractors from outside the union to do installation work, explained Chris Haag, a 35-year-old shop steward at MoMA PS1.
Local 30 has filed multiple grievances over this practice in the past year, citing violations of its collective bargaining agreement with the museum. After “strained” negotiations with management, Haag said, the workers decided to make a show of force outside the museum to try and push management’s hand.
“The workers of PS1 MoMA are fighting for a fair contract,” one union member on a bullhorn blared at museum visitors. “When you go in there, let them know that you support the workers of the museum!”
Installers at the museum receive wages at three different rates, explained Bob Wilson, a business representative of Local 30, all between $20 and $30 per hour. With the highest wages at MoMA’s Midtown museum reaching $47 an hour, Local 30 is asking for all installers’ wages to rise to between $30 and $40 per hour.
“We’re demanding parity with the sister museum,” said Wilson. “These workers are paid less than other institutions.”
The worst-paid installers at PS1 make 56 percent less than their counterparts in Manhattan, who support the union action, according to Wilson.
Local 30 is urging supporters to contact Jose Ortiz, the chief operating officer of PS1 MoMA.
Ruiz did not return calls for comment, but the museum did offer a statement saying, “MoMA PS1 has a terrific team of installation and maintenance staff, and we are committed to reaching a new contract with Local 30. We continue to make progress in negotiations, and have our next session scheduled for later this month. It’s been a productive process and we’re confident we’ll arrive at an amicable resolution.”
The union has met with management five times in the last few months to negotiate a new contract and has not yet reached an agreement.
Art installation is temporary work, but crucial to the museum, which does not hold a permanent collection and relies on seasonally changing exhibitions to fill its gallery spaces. As part-time workers, the installers at MoMA PS1 lack benefits, job security or paid vacation time.
For installers like Haag, this means choosing between a job he loves and making ends meet.
“Many of us are forced to take other jobs, that sometimes interfere with being able to do work at the museum,” he said. “We want to continue to thrive in New York City, and right now that’s not possible.”