Whitney Museum in Talks With Frustrated Art Handlers to Avert Whitney Biennial Strike

Whitney Museum in Talks With Frustrated Art Handlers to Avert Whitney Biennial Strike
The Whitney Museum of American Art
(Courtesy Wikipedia)

Sotheby’s ongoing lockout of its union art handlers thrust a group of historically behind-the-scenes professionals into the media spotlight. But auction houses aren’t the only institutions negotiating with the people who look after their art. The art handlers at the Whitney Museum are also in protracted contract negotiations with their employer, though the talks aren’t quite as bitter. A look at the negotiations in progress shows that there is an alternative to Sotheby’s aggressive tactics, but also suggests how difficult it is for museums to reach an agreement on union contracts when budgets are tight.

The discussions “have been cordial but difficult,” said Teamsters Local 966 manager James Anderson, who is negotiating on behalf of the art handlers. Unable to settle on a new contract, the museum has twice extended the old one, which expired in October. As it stands, the art handlers’ contract is set to expire again on January 31 — just before preparation for March’s Whitney Biennial kicks into high gear. Anderson hopes to bring an offer to the union members within the week — then, it’ll be up to them to accept or reject the proposal. If the art handlers reject it, “the Whitney could lock us out, we could go on strike, or the employer may agree to sit down and make some modifications,” he said.

Though the handlers are normally split between the Whitney’s Upper East Side gallery and its offsite storage facility, “everybody will be called uptown for the installation of the biennial in February, so if there was going to be a strike, that would be the time,” said another source close to the negotiations. The small band of Whitney union art handlers, which consists of around 10 people, is reportedly divided on considering such a dramatic move.

The negotiations center on wages and health care. The handlers are fighting to maintain their current health care contributions, though the Whitney has increased required contributions for non-union and many union employees from 10 to 20 percent museum-wide. The museum’s lawyers verbally suggested during negotiations that art handlers could make up for a loss of income by working more overtime, according to two people with knowledge of the negotiations. “The situation is different from Sotheby's because the Whitney is a nonprofit that intends to represent American cultural values,” said one Whitney art handler, "so they should be doing more."

Two smaller elements under negotiation offer a peek into field of art handling, which almost always occurs out of public view. At one point, the union sought full paid maternity leave since a member of the art handling team is currently pregnant. (“I don’t think were going to be successful in getting the Whitney to agree to that,” said Anderson, who noted that the woman will still receive disability pay under the Family Medical Leave Act.)

The union is also seeking to extend weekend overtime pay to temp workers — who make up a large portion of the Whitney’s art handlers — even if they have not worked a full week beforehand. When temporary art handlers stayed at the museum for 36-hour stretches during Hurricane Irene, they were not contractually entitled to overtime, though the museum provided it as an informal emergency measure. 

A representative from the Whitney said the museum could not comment on a negotiation in process but noted, “Our talks so far have been cordial and respectful, and we expect negotiations to continue until a mutually satisfying resolution is achieved.”

Those close to negotiations said the contract issue is particularly sensitive in light of the Whitney’s impending move to its new downtown location in 2015. The union was careful to negotiate a five-year contract so that their jobs would be safe after the move. “We have a long history with the Whitney — they’re rather progressive,” said Anderson. “They’re not coming at this from a place where they’re going to lock people out. Hopefully, we’re not going to be another Sotheby’s.”