When the New Museum Union voted to ratify our contract in the fall of 2019, it was a bittersweet victory. The entire fight—winning our election, the hearings that determined who would be in the union, nine months of contract negotiations—had been brutal, draining. It demanded collective strength and endurance in response to New Museum management’s ongoing retaliation. I’ve spoken and written about this pretty extensively, as one of the union’s organizers, a member of the bargaining committee, and a New Museum employee from fall 2016 until I was laid off in June 2020. And yet, sometimes it feels necessary to repeat myself: not only because I am still dealing with the consequences of this retaliation—I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder last year as a direct result of it—but because the museum seems intent on pushing a revisionist history in which their retaliation, hostility, and union-busting never happened.
The critic Nora N. Khan shared an Instagram story last summer in which she wrote, “Gaslighting is the psychological mindfuck common in abusive relationships—and our relationships with institutions are fundamentally abusive.”1 I think about this often. Though the term’s frequent circulation online has all but drained it of meaning, I can’t come up with a better way of describing New Museum management’s behavior than gaslighting: a form of manipulation in which an individual or institution makes you question the reality of your interactions with them and the legitimacy of your feelings arising from those interactions. Gaslighting is, for instance, reporting to the HR representative—as I did in 2019—that you felt as though you’d been coming to work every day with a target on your back and being informed, in a brief email a few days later, that the museum did not tolerate retaliation. (Even under bare-bones US labor law, retaliation against workers for organizing is prohibited; this email was clearly intended to minimize the museum’s legal liability.) It’s the museum’s attorney insinuating that those of us on the bargaining committee were delusional for proposing that the museum offer healthcare to part-time employees—a proposal we kept on the table until the final days of contract negotiations—and then, less than a year later, the museum sending out a self-congratulatory press release announcing that they would begin to cover part-timers’ healthcare (no mention of the union, natch).
After nine months of negotiations and the threat of a strike, we won a strong first contract—a huge accomplishment. My comrade on the bargaining committee, Lily, told me a union organizer friend of hers, upon hearing about our contract win, asked, “Isn’t it such a complicated feeling?” A combination of pride at the material improvements we’d won for ourselves and our colleagues; disappointment that despite all our efforts, we knew we still deserved more than what this first contract offered; exhaustion; and relief that such an intense process had finally come to an end.
As one of the union’s spokespeople, I’ve shared highlights of our contract with press and the public: in the first year of our five-year contract alone, we won average salary increases of 8.2% for full-time staff and 15.7% for part-time front-of-house workers; we reduced employee healthcare contributions and won a healthcare stipend for part-timers; we pressured the museum to finally let our union meet at the museum; we put into effect a grievance and arbitration procedure, increased paid time off, and implemented a pay increase for employees temporarily taking on someone else’s work.
Here, though, I want to delve deeper into part of the contract, to draw out the context in which it came together and the implications it has for past, current, and future New Museum employees. As Mark C. Suchman writes, “To make sense of a contractual practice, one must understand both the economic and the cultural environments that gave it birth.”2 Suchman treats contracts as social artifacts—lenses through which we might understand the relationships and social, cultural, and political norms that underpin these documents. He writes:
“Contracts evoke normative principles and illuminate social experiences—at times expressing identity, solidarity, forbearance, and faith, and at times expressing differentiation, inequality, domination, and distrust. ‘Best efforts’ clauses become signals of goodwill, and security liens become statements of suspicion; negotiated revisions become shows of mutuality, and preprinted forms become indicators of oppression; warranties become emblems of quality, and disclaimers become marks of deficiency.”3
At the New Museum, our contract attempted to rectify numerous workplace issues, from the obvious (extremely low pay, high turnover, lack of diversity in better-paid positions) to the more intangible: few avenues for dealing with abusive managers, a toxic culture that glorified overwork and deemed low-level staff easily replaceable.
With so much to bargain for in our first contract—and so much resistance from management to even the most basic union proposals—we had to prioritize certain parts of the contract over others. Our priorities in negotiations were determined through an extensive survey sent to all union members and conversations with our colleagues throughout the process. Unsurprisingly, the top of the list featured proposals for higher pay, lower healthcare costs and extending healthcare to part-time workers, and improved time off policies (especially parental leave, since the museum only offered three weeks of paid leave to new parents when we unionized). Management’s attorney, a partner at a white-shoe law firm, repeatedly claimed that there was only “one pot” of money at the ostensibly small New Museum; it’s unclear if his fee of around $1,500 per hour (our estimate) was coming out of that pot too. As a result, we were unable to devote as much energy to standard but less pressing proposals like layoff provisions and recall rights. At the time of our negotiations in 2019, there hadn’t, to our knowledge, been layoffs at the New Museum—or most museums in New York—in years.
The layoff provisions in the New Museum Union contract are as follows:
- In the event of a layoff among employees in Visitor Services or the Store, the least senior employee in their respective department shall be laid off first. Such employees are eligible to elect to fill any vacancy within their respective departments that occurs within twelve (12) months of their layoff. In the event that there are fewer vacancies than eligible laid off employees, preference for election shall be by seniority.
- In the event of a layoff in other departments of the Museum, where employees’ skill and ability are equal, the least senior employee among those in the same affected classification within a department shall be laid off.
- In the event that the Museum fills a position within twelve (12) months of a layoff, the Museum shall offer the position to the most senior employee laid off from the same department and classification in which the Museum is filling the position.
We also eventually agreed on the following severance provisions for laid-off employees:
Any employee who is laid off shall receive severance pay in the following amounts:
|Length of Service||Severance Pay Amount|
|Less than two (2) years of service||Two (2) weeks|
|Two (2) years of service but less than three (3) years||Three (3) weeks|
|Three (3) years of service but less than four (4) years||Four (4) weeks|
|Four (4) years of service but less than five (5) years||Five (5) weeks|
|Five (5) years of service but less than six (6) years||Six (6) weeks|
|Six (6) years of service but less than seven (7) years||Eight (8) weeks|
|Seven (7) or more years||One (1) additional week for each year of service above seven (7)|
Clauses (1) and (2) distinguish between front-of-house departments, where most workers share the same or similar job titles, and other departments at the museum, which are primarily based in the office and where there are only one or two employees per title. For the former, straight seniority enables those who have been at the museum the longest to retain their jobs amid layoffs and to return to work first if the museum rehires for laid-off positions. For the latter, the contract avoids straight seniority, including the phrase “where employees’ skill and ability are equal” to account for the fact that office staff often have very different duties, even those who work in the same department (a designer can’t simply take on the work of an editor, for instance, although both work in External Affairs). Clause (3) concerns recall rights, which require the museum to offer relevant open positions to laid-off employees before opening those positions to other applicants for a year after the layoffs.
We also eventually agreed on the following severance provisions for laid-off employees:
Considering that many people did not stay at the museum for more than a year or two—a direct result of being underpaid and overworked—some of the severance provisions we won might seem insubstantial. Vox Media Union’s contract, for instance, provides for a minimum of eleven weeks’ severance pay for laid-off employees. But severance seemed abstract to us, contingent upon an unlikely situation, whereas increases to our salaries and implementing guaranteed annual raises would have immediate material effects on all of our lives. Management had also tried to make severance contingent upon employees signing a non-disclosure agreement, a proposal we vehemently refused and successfully kept out of our contract.
Then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York. In mid-March, our union sent a letter to Lisa Phillips, New Museum’s director, encouraging her to allow employees to work from home if their jobs permitted to reduce the likelihood of infection for all staff. Shortly thereafter, museums across the city closed to the public as increasing numbers of COVID cases cropped up in New York. I was able to work from my apartment, where I continued copyediting exhibition catalogue materials until April 2, when I was furloughed. Most of my colleagues in the union, particularly the outspoken supporters, were furloughed or laid off as well. At around 9:30 AM that day, the president of our local union received a call from management’s attorney informing her of the job cuts (a legal requirement rather than a courtesy), and by 10 AM, most of us had received calls from our bosses informing us that we were no longer employed by the museum, whether temporarily or permanently. All of us lost access to our work email accounts by noon.
Because of our contract, New Museum management had the right to institute layoffs and furloughs as needed, but it also stipulated that the museum must negotiate with the union over the effects of these layoffs and furloughs. In several meetings with management representatives and their lawyer—no less antagonistic than they had been in bargaining—we pushed them to justify the specific positions terminated (some of which, like the Marketing Associate and Grants and Corporate Sponsorship Manager, still had plenty of work to do) and to extend healthcare for those of us who had lost our jobs (we were, after all, at the start of a global pandemic). Since we had won severance provisions in our contract, no one was forced to negotiate severance for themselves in an economic downturn and, in many cases, with unsupportive or actively hostile supervisors.
In her fittingly titled book Contract and Contagion (2012), Angela Mitropoulos calls contracts “future-oriented technologies”: mechanisms for anticipating future conditions and attempting to control or account for their outcomes.4
At the New Museum, our union contract was shaped by our understanding of existing issues and our desire to mitigate them going forward. We didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, predict a global pandemic that would reshape economic relations well beyond the art world. Mitropoulos writes,
“The contract is capitalism’s most cherished axiom. It is a projective geometry of obligation and its interiorised calculus. Emerging simultaneous with capitalism, it has been crucial … to the organisation of private property and the subjective dispositions of capitalist legal architecture. It is also, I would suggest, the very sense of the performative. Briefly put: contracts are preoccupied with the transformation of contingency into necessity as a specifically capitalist problem. … [C]ontracts are part of the making of what they say.”5
A contract is a way of structuring the present to account for—and determine—what’s to come. Inevitably, a union contract operates within the capitalist framework in which we all live, yet workers use union contracts to push back on the profit motive, growth imperative, and devaluing of workers’ labor that define institutions under capitalism. In this, the contract is one tactic among many, from petitions and social media campaigns to work stoppages and strikes.
Though no one in our union anticipated the pandemic, few of us were surprised at New Museum management’s response: using the closures and economic downturn as a pretext to purge museum staff of union supporters. While museums across the country instituted layoffs and furloughs, the New Museum’s job cuts disproportionately targeted those involved with the union: our entire steward committee (including myself) was laid off, as were four members of our six-person bargaining committee (the other two were furloughed for months). Of twenty-five total layoffs, sixteen were union members; many of the others were low-paid security and maintenance workers. Every single executive and all but three mid-level managers retained their jobs. As a union, we bargained with the museum over the effects of these layoffs and furloughs, pushing for extensions to our recall rights (which the museum denied) and our healthcare coverage (which they agreed to extend for an additional month).
We also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regarding the museum’s discrimination against union organizers and supporters—a violation of our contract as well as US labor law. Filing charges with the NLRB is a lengthy process even without a pandemic raging, and the Labor Board, then headed by Trump appointees, sent the charges back through the grievance and arbitration process outlined in our contract rather than hear the case outright. This is how I ended up, just a few weeks ago—more than a year after the layoffs, our recall rights freshly expired—in a Zoom conference with a handful of union comrades and as many still-employed New Museum managers, listening as their lawyer yet again attempted to rewrite history. His opening statement lasted half an hour: in it, he made dubious claims about our work no longer being necessary during the pandemic. Who was posting to social media? Who was editing the newsletters and the catalogues that were still in production?
“It’s easy to throw around allegations of discriminatory animus,” he noted patronizingly. “Supposedly there was all kinds of hostility against the union by the museum. Supposedly it says it was a hostile and tense negotiation.”6 Supposedly—a word meant to cast doubt over my and my colleagues’ experiences of condescension, outright hostility, and retaliation at the bargaining table and in our day-to-day work. It was enough to force out a number of organizers even before the layoffs, enough to leave us with lasting trauma—and according to the New Museum, it never happened.
Afterwards, the arbitrator called a ten-minute break, during which I planned to prepare to testify but instead collapsed on the floor in a panic attack. Ultimately, I didn’t have to testify—given the unpredictability of an arbitrator’s decision, we agreed to a settlement with the museum in which they will recruit some of the laid-off bargaining unit positions. This agreement doesn’t bring employees back to work, nor does it compensate us for being unfairly dismissed; the museum flat-out refused the latter and, frankly, none of us wanted to work there again. But the settlement offers us a means of rebuilding the strength of our now-decimated union. Like a contract, it looks to the future.