The Cultural Workers Go On StrikeBreaking News
tags: museums, strikes, labor, academic labor
Alissa Quart is the author of five books of nonfiction, including Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. She is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the co-producer of the radio show and podcast Going for Broke from PRX, which explores American labor.
Earlier this month, I spent a morning with Rachel Urkowitz on the picket lines in front of Parsons School of Design and the New School, which is part of the latter. Rachel is my closest friend, an artist who has taught at Parsons for nearly 20 years, instructing a generation of students about color, light, and the history of visual culture. At all the schools under the New School umbrella, 87 percent of instructional staff are adjuncts like Rachel. Yet although they make up the vast majority of professors, the pay gap between them and, say, administrators is enormous: The adjuncts’ salaries comprise only 8.5 percent of the overall budget, with some instructors saying that they make only $4,000 per class. It is impossible to live on such low salaries, especially in places with high housing costs such as New York City.
The mood on the lines was aggrieved but also joyous with burgeoning solidarity. One adjunct tap danced; another blew a shofar; a third had a union sign pinned to their baby’s pram. “Where’s Our Social Justice,” a sign read, perhaps referring to a director of brand strategy for the college who told a student reporter that “social justice plays a role in the New School’s branding”—or more elliptically to the fact that the college was founded over 100 years ago by progressive intellectuals. Tenured professors came to show support, while truck and ambulette drivers honked in appreciation as they passed. It was, for a moment, a version of New York City where those who show students how to write and those who drive groceries cross-country see common cause, their struggles creating mutual recognition, a kind of democratic kismet.
This season culture workers are organizing against their own exploitation. Professors of art, workers at museums, and assistants at a publishing house have all gone on strike or staged public protests during contract negotiations. Call this a black-turtleneck-worker uprising rather than a white-collar one. “Wages are stagnant and we earn far lower salaries than our peers elsewhere,” the union representing employees at the Brooklyn Museum recently tweeted. They’ve been busy protesting outside their work site. During one action, workers held up signs decrying the vacuity of the VIP opening for the museum’s haute couture fashion exhibit: One read, “You can’t eat prestige.” (The union is calling for a 7 percent salary increase this year and raises of 4 percent per year for each of the two years following.) Unions are currently on strike at the publisher HarperCollins and at the University of California system, where 48,000 academic workers are sitting out their underpaid teaching gigs.
Throughout the museum sector, there is also a surge of collective actions. In Beacon, New York, and other sites around the country, the staff at the Dia Art Foundation have voted to form a union. Ohio museum workers, known as Columbus Museum of Art Workers United, recently voted nearly unanimously in favor of unionizing with Afscme Ohio Council 8. At the Field Museum in Chicago, workers urged their CEO to recognize their union, and in Philadelphia, after a 19-day strike, museum workers were recently able to get their employer to agree to wage increases totaling 14 percent across the life of the contract until July 2025. It’s such a phenomenon that cultural strikes have even led to that ultimate proof-of-trend, their own podcast, Art and Labor.
These uprisings reveal just how much brain work has become gig work.
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