1. “Unions are for coal miners”

In order to dissuade workers from unionizing at the New Museum, management claimed that “unions are for coal miners.”¹ This statement exposes inherited ideas around what it means to be a worker and what counts as labor. 

There is a pervasive idea that workers are “lucky” to be employed at museums. I remember leaving my job at a restaurant in Boston a few years ago to work at an art museum. Everyone congratulated me, but I was making the same amount of money, less without tips, and on Thursdays my boss enforced a 3-hour break in the middle of the day to avoid paying overtime. 

Employees at art institutions are consistently underpaid, overworked and are often juggling several part-time jobs at once. Some of the reasons my coworkers and I decided to unionize at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) included low wages, lack of transparency, lack of job security, and health and safety concerns. Despite our precarious working conditions, there is a longstanding misconception that museum and cultural workers do not have a place in the labor movement. 

Playing into the idea that one’s work isn’t labor is an old and effective way to destabilize organizing efforts. In the early 1970s when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) staff union, the Professional and Administrative Staff Association (PASTA) wanted curators to be included in the bargaining unit, the board refused to recognize curators as “workers,” instead associating them with managers.² At one point, PASTA members were asked, “Don’t you think it might have been more relevant for the PASTA not to have gone into the classical trade union situation?” This question presumes that unions are a bit “old fashioned,” geared toward manual labor and not appropriate for museum workers. 

Newspaper clipping with headline “MOMA Gets a Taste of PASTA”
PASTA Strike at MoMA. Image courtesy of The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

In my experience working as a museum educator leading tours, visitors often ask if I am doing my job as a volunteer. (I am usually smiling and providing an experience—to some visitors this gives the illusion that I am not at work.) In actuality, there are many volunteer docents who work at cultural institutions. Every year around 300 people “apply” for 30 docent positions at the Met.⁴

Volunteer docents usually fit into a specific demographic: white, older, female, and upper-middle class. Andrea Fraser takes up the role of the museum docent in Museum Highlights: a gallery talk. In her performance, Fraser assumes the persona of Jane Castleton, a volunteer museum docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Fraser adopts certain postures and expressions, revealing how the docent produces “bourgeois subjecthood” and the “ideological role of the museum.”⁵ Fraser writes, “A volunteer docent is not just someone who gives tours for a small percentage of the museum visitors; she is the museum representative…[She] is a figure of identification for the primarily white, middle-class audience.”⁶

I used to give tours of Museum Highlights at MOCA. I tried to engage with the work in a self-reflexive way, explaining to visitors that my own job was the subject of critique. At MOCA, my main role is to facilitate and listen to visitors rather than present information in a top-down, lecture format. But as much as my job tries to move away from the role Fraser critiques, it is still implicated, especially as it remains low-paid, part-time, contracted, and unpaid at many institutions. The material conditions of the job make it largely inaccessible to people who cannot afford to work in such a precarious position, devaluing the field of museum pedagogy and reinforcing the idea that this is a “prestigious” job—or not even a job at all. 

The problem with volunteer docents is structural, not personal. The docent position, similar to other jobs within education, is consistently undervalued and discounted as labor partially because it is assumed to be done out of love and care. Work that fits into this “labor of love” narrative is historically feminized and unpaid. As Silvia Federici writes in “Wages Against Housework”, “They say it is love, we say it is unwaged work.”⁷

The pervasive idea that one is “lucky” to work at a job, or that a job is done out of passion rather than necessity is a recent trend that Sarah Jaffe writes about in her book Work Won’t Love You Back.⁸ Jaffe discusses the rise of service-oriented jobs that fit into the “labor of love” narrative, pointing to catchphrases like “love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life” and “this is not a job but a calling.” Workers are supposed to do their jobs for fulfillment and joy, but they are also required to be flexible, always available, and they usually don’t get health insurance. If workers are not happy with their jobs it’s an individual and personal failing, unrelated to the material conditions of their workplace. 

These already precarious conditions were amplified at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers have been asked to risk their lives to go back to school with unsafe reopening plans and to work at overcrowded schools that haven’t had repairs, expected to make up for the gaps in the social safety net by loving the kids they teach. Last April MoMA terminated all the contracts of its freelance educators, offering no promise of reemployment.⁹

2. “We make bargaining agreements, not revolutions”

In the 1960s, United Auto Workers (UAW) president Walter Reuther said, “We make bargaining agreements, not revolutions.”¹⁰ At the time, UAW’s executive board was almost exclusively white and male, more concerned with “disciplining its members than challenging the companies.”¹¹

Just as we must interrogate management’s language around unions, it also seems crucial to think about unionizing as an ongoing project that must constantly be reconsidered. While divisions are obstacles to organizing, one must account for the divisions that do emerge in the workplace, specifically divisions of labor by race and gender.¹² Unionizing should empower workers, and workers should be critical of hierarchies and limitations that emerge within their union.

The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) was an organization of Black autoworkers in Detroit, Michigan, growing out of the Black Power Movement a year after the 1967 Detroit riots. DRUM argued that UAW did not focus on the discrimination Black workers faced.¹³ DRUM also expressed strong opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, calling on the UAW to organize a general strike to immediately end the war. In 1969, DRUM’s leaders created the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. They were targeted by the police, who defended Big Auto and the UAW. 

Black and white photograph of DRUM workers on strike
Black and white photograph of DRUM workers on strike. A man waves a mid the crowd along the street waves a flag.
United Auto Workers Collection: Local 3 (Dodge Main): Strike, 1970. Photos courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor & Urban Affairs.

The history of DRUM speaks to the ways that racism and classism are interconnected, to the shortcomings of their union, and to the possibility of organizing outside the walls of the workplace and in one’s community. There are ongoing conversations around how unions might be pushed in a more radical direction. There is the call to disband police unions, for example, which have historically stood in opposition to racial and economic justice.¹⁴ In June of 2020 the longshoremen in Oakland shut down their ports in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.¹⁵ There have been recent conversations about Bargaining for the Common Good,¹⁶ which proposes that workers should not only see their bargaining demands in relation to workplace issues but also issues in their communities, such as policing and gentrification. There are, ultimately, limits to a contract itself. Dana Kopel from the New Museum Union acknowledges, “a union contract operates within the capitalist framework in which we all live” but can be seen as “one tactic among many, from petitions and social media campaigns to work stoppages and strikes.”¹⁷

3. The Crowd and the Collective Subject

Black and white image of women workers leaving the Lumière Factory
Still from Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.

I remember leaving MOCA on Thursday nights when I was working as a gallery attendant, a position which requires employees to guard the artwork on view and also engage visitors in conversation. Thursdays were longer than other shifts because the museum stayed open until 8 p.m. and was free for the last three hours. There was usually an influx of visitors, which meant things were often chaotic. At the end of the night I would rush to the elevator with my co-workers, all dressed in uniform, and we would leave the museum together. Then the crowd quickly dissipated, and people ran to the bus or to the parking lot across the street. 

A few years later, when we first went public as a union, around one hundred workers from various departments marched in uniform from across the street to the upstairs offices at MOCA. Posts on social media started circulating immediately after, mostly images of us in a crowd standing together outside. 

Looking back at these experiences I feel a sense of loss. The pandemic happened shortly after we declared our intent to unionize and many of us were laid off and have since left MOCA to work elsewhere. We are continuing our organizing work, but most of it takes place online. More fundamentally, this sense of loss comes from the acknowledgement that crowds are always fleeting or as Jodi Dean writes, “the crowd is a temporary collective being.”¹⁸ Dean speaks of the limits and possibilities of the crowd in relation to the Occupy Movement, explaining that the crowd itself does not have a politics, rather it is an event or a rupture that opens up the potential for politics.

Seeing ourselves in a crowd affirmed our collective power as workers and made it apparent that changing the entire field of cultural labor requires museum workers to understand their issues as shared rather than individual. In their mission statement the New Museum Union writes:

We believe that fair compensation for all workers throughout the museum is essential to ensuring its diversity: salaries, wages, and benefits at the museum must be sustainable for everyone, regardless of the privileges afforded them by race, class, or gender.¹⁹

Museum workers across the country are organizing with trade unions that represent workers in various sectors, forging alliances between white-collar and blue-collar workers and pushing up against myths and demarcations around what counts as labor. Many museum workers in New York are unionizing with UAW which represents technical, office, and professional workers, including the professional and administrative staff of the MoMA, the New Museum, the Bronx Museum, the New-York Historical Society, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and more recently, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Maine PMA, MASS MoCA, Anthology Film Archives, the Hispanic Society of America, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum. The MOCA Union organized with AFSCME, which represents nurses, EMTs, sanitation workers, library workers, and employees at the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Zoo, the Walker Art Center, and the Philadelphia Art Museum. We might also think about solidarity between garment laborers at Guess Jeans sweatshops, run by the Marciano Brothers, and workers at the Marciano Foundation who lost their jobs after attempting to unionize with AFSCME when the Marcianos abruptly closed the Foundation.²⁰

Solidarity takes various forms: conversations with workers at other museums to offer advice about the unionization process, mutual aid funds, showing up to bargaining sessions on Zoom every week, and always interrogating the ways we relate to our work, our unions, and each other. 

A comrade recently said, “The goal of unionizing is to make material what management tries to abstract.” I was reminded of an interview where Sarah Jaffe remarks, “Work won’t love you back but other people will” and discusses solidarity as a form of love, as showing up and putting oneself on the line for other people, even people one doesn’t know.

Group photo of the MOCA Union before going public
MOCA Union before going public, November 22, 2019.

Some union accounts to follow: 

*An ongoing archive of the MOCA Union is available at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive 

  1. Dana Kopel, “Putting in the Work,” Web Archive (blog), Texte Zur Kunst, March 3, 2021, https://www.textezurkunst.de/articles/dana-kopel-putting-work/.
  2. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “The Present Complex: Lawrence Alloway and the Currency of Museums,” in Lawrence Alloway: critic and curator, eds., Lucy Bradnock, Courtney J. Martin, and Rebecca Peabody (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2015), 182. https://arthistory.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/jbw-alloway.pdf
  3. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “The Present Complex: Lawrence Alloway and the Currency of Museums,” 182.
  4. Michael Scotto, “What it takes to become a coveted Met guide,” New York 1, March 5, 2018, https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2018/03/05/met-docent-program-.
  5. Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, ed., Alexander Alberro (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), xxvi.
  6. Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, xxvi.
  7. The Welfare Rights Movement also fought to make certain kinds of work visible.
  8. Sarah Jaffe, Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone (New York, Bold Type Books, 2021).
  9. Valentina Di Liscia, “MoMA Terminates All Museum Educator Contracts,” Hyperallergic, April 3, 2020, https://hyperallergic.com/551571/moma-educator-contracts/.
  10. Khury Petersen-Smith, “DRUM and the Revolt of the Black Working Class,” SocialistWorker.org (blog), February 8, 2019, https://socialistworker.org/2019/02/08/drum-and-the-revolt-of-the-black-working-class.
  11. Khury Petersen-Smith, “DRUM and the Revolt of the Black Working Class.”
  12. “It is always in the heart of the worker aristocracy that a hegemonic fraction forms, presenting itself as the proletariat and affirming the proletarian capacity to organize another social order, starting with the skills and values formed in its work and its struggle,” writes Jacques Ranciere; see “Les maillons de la chaîne (Prolétaires et dictatures,” Les révoltes logiques, no. 2 (Spring–Summer 1976): 5.
  13. Eric Greve, “Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement,” African American History (blog), Black Past, March 10, 2012, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/dodge-revolutionary-union-movement-1968-1971/.
  14. “AFSCME rank-and-file and labor activists committed to fighting racial and economic injustice,” Cop Free AFSCME, accessed November 9, 2021, https://copfreeafscme.com/.
  15. Karina Piser, “Unions Are Taking a Stand for Black Lives,” The Nation, June 24, 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/economy/oakland-dock-shutdown/.
  16. For more, visit Bargaining for the Common good; https://www.bargainingforthecommongood.org/.
  17. For more, visit Decolonial Hacker; https://www.decolonialhacker.org/.
  18. Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (New York: Verso, 2018), 31.
  19. “Mission Statement,” New Museum, accessed November 9, 2021, https://newmuseumunion.org/mission.
  20. Alex Greenberger, “Citing Low Attendance, Marciano Art Foundation Lays Off at Least 60 Employees Amid Unionization Efforts,” Artnews, November 6, 2019, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/marciano-art-foundation-fires-employees-union-13520/.

Olivia Leiter is an artist and educator living in Los Angeles. She is on the organizing committee of the MOCA Union.