Labor Dispute Looming for Whitney Museum Art Handlers as Biennial Approaches

01/25/2012 2:45 PM |

But who will install the 2012 Biennial?
  • But who will install the 2012 Biennial?

Since auction house Sotheby’s locked its unionized art handlers out of their Upper East Side headquarters last August—a dispute which has only worsened since then—everyone’s being hyper-vigilant about the plight of New York’s small but essential community of art handlers. But before they start training for the 2012 Art Handling Olympics (yes, they’re happening), the Whitney Museum’s ten full-time, unionized art handlers need to finish renegotiating their contract—the current one expires on January 31st.

Teamsters Local 966 manager James Anderson, who is negotiating for the Whitney’s art handlers, tells ArtInfo that the negotiations “have been cordial but difficult.” Their contract was initially set to expire in October of last year, but has been extended twice. Anderson said earlier this week that he expected to have an offer from the museum by the end of the week. But if the art handlers reject the offer, “the Whitney could lock us out, we could go on strike, or the employer may agree to sit down and make some modifications.” And with the museum about to begin installing its 2012 Biennial, any strike or lock-out could be disastrous—or just very, very costly.

An unnamed source privy to the talks tells ArtInfo that the museum’s art handler force is typically split between its Madison Avenue building and an off-site storage facility, but “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.”

The main points of conflict in the negotiations are related to health care and wages. ArtInfo’s Julia Halperin explains:

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.

Two other sticking points the handlers are less hopeful of securing are full paid maternity leave, and extending weekend overtime pay to temporary workers, who account for most of the museum’s art-handling force. Anderson, at least, is hopeful: “We have a long history with the Whitney—they’re rather progressive.”

Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt