Rank and File: Chris H. on Local 30 and the Art of Negotiation

What is your occupation? (You don’t need to specify the company if you prefer not to.)

I am an Art Installer at MoMA PS1.  We install and de-install every show that goes on inside the museum. We have carpenters, art handlers and audio video technicians on the crew, so that we are capable of implementing a particular artist’s vision. One of the most challenging aspects of working with living artists, and also why most of us are attracted to it, is that you never know what the next project is going to be - artists are unpredictable.  

How long have you been a member? How would you characterize your involvement with the union?

We first unionized three years ago. I’ll admit that I was a little bit hesitant at first. I got along with PS1 management and felt well respected by the staff.  However, I discovered that this was not the case with many of my colleagues, and some people were being paid much less for doing the same work. The organizers for Local 30 and our business representative met with all of us over the course of a few months and made a very strong case that bringing in the union was the right thing to do.

My initial engagement with the union was minimal, until I was asked to be the new shop steward. At first, I felt a little bit adrift and unsure about my responsibilities. People would come to me with complaints and I didn’t really know what my role was. Management was also expecting me to educate everyone on the contract and all of the rules we were supposed to abide by but gave me no time during working hours to do this. There were also instances were they expected me to discipline workers for what they saw as infractions. I attended shop steward training at the Local 30 Union Hall which was very helpful. It was pretty amazing how similar my experience was working at a museum with other members who worked at power plants and boiler rooms throughout the city.

What do you feel are the major issues your union is focused on right now?

We are currently in negotiations for our second contract. The Art Installers of MoMA PS1 share the same union with the Installers across the river at MoMA 53rd st. We do the same work yet are paid up to 50% less and have no benefits. This has made the negotiations particularly difficult because a simple percentage increase to wages is not sufficient. We need a significant bump to the starting wage in order to bring us closer to the wages paid to other workers in our field.  

What is/has been the attitude of your employer toward the union?

Not great… The management of MoMA PS1 has expressed hostility towards the union and its members. They feel that it restricts their ability to hire and fire people and get outside contractors to come in and do work.

Discuss the ways your union has advocated for the interests of its members.

Local 30 has shown immense solidarity with its new members in the art handling field. We had a rally outside of PS1 in order to express to management our discontent with the way the contract negotiations were going and many Operating Engineers showed up with a giant inflatable rat and bullhorn to protest with us. I’ve been in constant communication with our business representative and he has always made himself available. There is a genuine push and outreach to organize more labor in this field. They offered us the Union Hall to hold an art show this fall which should be pretty fun, and are trying to get more of our members out to the monthly meetings.

Are there issues you feel your union should organize around that are not currently being addressed?

I understand that we need to take one step at a time. We are putting everything into getting a fair contract with MoMA. I think some of the larger underlying issues that need to be addressed are how to get portable health insurance for freelancers that work for multiple institutions. I’d also like unions to start addressing the underlying problem of affordable housing in NYC. Local 30 does have a credit union that members can join in order to get low interest loans but I’d love to see some sort of unionized affordable housing project so that this city can continue to be a place for working families.

Please elaborate on any points not covered by this questionnaire that you would like to address:

I think that unions in general need to address some of the racial, ethic and gender discrimination that they have historically taken part in. Local 30 originated in 1896 and only recently hired its first African American business representative. They are genuinely attempting to organize and protect more working women and minorities which is good but long overdue. These prejudices were historically used to undermine and weaken the position of unionized labor and we can’t let that happen again. The argument for getting the same pay for the same work regardless of age, gender, religion, height, nepotism, immigration or part-time working status is incredibly potent and one of the only ways out of our current political morass.