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Frustrated over ongoing contract talks with management, unionized MASS MoCA workers will strike Friday

A tent with signs in front of a large brick complex
Josh Landes
/
WAMC

After almost a year of contract negotiations, unionized workers at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts are holding a one-day strike Friday.

The work stoppage marks the first major action from the union that formed last April to address grievances among employees of the sprawling art museum.

“A livable wage is one of the most important issues that we are fighting for in this contract," Maro Elliott told WAMC. "Currently, the museum is proposing a $16 per hour minimum, and we know that that minimum is not a livable wage for our members. We're proposing an $18 per hour minimum in the first year of our contract, and we would like that minimum to increase to around $20 per hour in the final year of our contract.”

Elliott is the museum's manager of institutional giving and a member of the union’s organizing and negotiating committees.

“We cite the Economic Policy Institute and their family budget calculator in our decision making for this range of minimums and the calculator indicates that in order to live modestly in Berkshire County, a single person without children needs to earn about $40,000 per year," said Elliott. "So we are working towards ensuring that our union members have a living wage and are able to live in Berkshire County and comfortably work at the museum.”

Elliott says the union is fighting to ensure job security and appropriate safety and health coverage for workers.

“We are looking to maintain existing benefits that are provided by the museum, including health insurance," said the union rep. "And we are also fighting for a fair and uncomplicated grievance and arbitration procedure. The proposal that management has made is unnecessarily complicated, and Local 2110 has really solidified an effective process that is a part of many of their contracts with other cultural organizations.”

Frustrated with the status of their ongoing bargaining with MASS MoCA, the union’s 100-odd members will strike at the end of the week.

“Friday, we will be picketing outside of the museum from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and we're hoping that we'll have a large crowd of supporters there joining us," said Elliott. "And we've already gotten a wonderful and overwhelming response from the community in support of our efforts. And we are looking forward to seeing everyone there, and if folks aren't able to make it to the strike, we're hoping that they can send letters of support and consider donating to our workers’ fund, which we're setting up to support that workers who are making the sacrifice of losing a day's pay in order to be on strike.”

The union is asking that visitors reschedule any trips to the museum on Friday in solidarity with the workers.

MASS MoCA issued a statement to WAMC, which in part read:

“While we respect our employees’ right to strike as a means of expressing their views, we are also disappointed in their decision, given the positive and collaborative environment that we have worked to foster during our collective bargaining process with the UAW. MASS MoCA’s leadership has been negotiating in good faith with the UAW in order to reach a fair contract for both sides. Throughout negotiations, we've consistently demonstrated a willingness to listen and genuinely consider the union’s demands.”

Elliott says that isn’t how the union sees it.

“That statement runs counter to my experience of bargaining with the museum," she told WAMC. "We have, as the union, already filed an unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board, and the decision was made in the union’s favor. We've also since filed additional unfair labor practice charges. So unfortunately, we have not found the negotiations to be as productive as MASS MoCA is portraying them.”

Here's the full MASS MoCA statement on Friday's labor strike:

While we respect our employees’ right to strike as a means of expressing their views, we are also disappointed in their decision, given the positive and collaborative environment that we have worked to foster during our collective bargaining process with the UAW.

MASS MoCA’s leadership has been negotiating in good faith with the UAW in order to reach a fair contract for both sides. Throughout negotiations, we've consistently demonstrated a willingness to listen and genuinely consider the union’s demands—and when their proposals have provided for a positive employee experience, and supported our museum culture of teamwork, collaboration, and excellence, we've welcomed and worked with those objectives. As a result, we've made significant progress towards reaching a contract and look forward to getting back to the bargaining table to continue our negotiations.

Here's the union's full press release about the strike:

Unionized employees of MASS MoCA voted by a 96% vote to engage in a one-day work stoppage on August 19, 2022. Employees will be picketing the Museum all day and asking visitors to express support for a fair contract for staff.

The employees’ union, part of Local 2110 UAW, was formed in April of 2021 and has been in bargaining for the first union contract since last summer.

"We have asked our members to strike because MASS MoCA has not bargained in good faith on a fair contract for the employees who make it so successful," said Maro Elliott, Manager of Institutional Giving and.a member of the Union’s Negotiating Committee. “We want an agreement with MASS MoCA that will create a more accessible, equitable, and just workplace.”

The average wage in the bargaining unit is $17.30 per hour and two thirds of the unit make under $15.50 per hour. According to The Economic Policy Institute’s family budget calculator for a modest living in Berkshire County, a single individual with no children needs to earn $40,000 per year. The Union is seeking a minimum rate of $18 per hour for the first year of the contract and increases in 2023 and 2024 that would raise staff closer to $20 per hour by the end of the contract. The Museum is proposing a $16 per hour minimum and no guaranteed increases in 2023 and 2024.

"Many of us live locally in North Adams. By raising hourly rates to something more livable, MASS MoCA would not only be supporting its employees, but helping lift the community," said Isabel Twanmo, a Box Office Representative who has worked at MASS MoCA since 2018 and is on the Union’s Negotiating Committee.

Local 2110 has filed unfair labor practice charges against MASS MoCA with the National Labor Relations Board, citing the Museum’s bad faith bargaining. Earlier this summer, MASS MoCA was forced to settle an initial charge filed by the Union because of its refusal to grant a regularly scheduled annual increase to unionized employees after the union was voted in. The Museum was ultimately forced to grant the increases retroactively and post a public notice about doing so. The Union filed another charge when the Museum promised additional raises to individual employees if they convinced the union to lower its wage demands.

“Throughout months of bargaining, MASS MoCA’s representatives have been antagonistic toward our union, telling us the arts and artists come first. We all love MASS MoCA but we also have to live,” said Elliott.

In April 2021, the MASS MoCA staff voted overwhelmingly to unionize with UAW Local 2110. The bargaining unit includes approximately one hundred full-time and part-time employees who work as educators, curators, custodians, museum attendants, box office staff, art fabricators, technicians, and other administrative and professional staff. UAW Local 2110 is a technical, office and professional union that represents many museums and cultural institutions in the northeast including the Museum of Modern Art, the MFA, Boston, the Portland Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and many other non-profit and educational institutions.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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