SMFA: Strike at the Museum of Fine Arts

Update: A previous version of this article misstated Eve Mayberger’s job title. The Observer sincerely apologizes for this error.

On November 17, over 300 employees and supporters stood outside the Museum of Fine Arts’ Huntington Avenue entrance to protest working conditions faced by MFA employees. The decision to strike came after a November 11 vote, where 96 percent of members of the MFA Union supported plans to hold a one-day strike outside of the museum due to frustrations with wage stagnation, job insecurity, and contract negotiation delays. 

Prior to the strike, Tufts Labor Coalition sent out information about the MFA union picket line to its members. On Instagram, TLC asked its followers, many of whom are Tufts students, to donate to the MFA solidarity fund and join the strike. “Any time that workers are fighting for their rights, I think it involves all of us, specifically when we can show solidarity… trying to build solidarity is really important in keeping in mind that all labor movements are connected,” said sophomore TLC member Alexis Hedvat. 

The strike came after months of delays and obstacles to unionization. MFA employees began the unionization process in Summer 2019, citing a desire for increased “staff diversity, more plentiful opportunities for advancement and raises, and support of staff with care responsibilities.” However, unionization was initially delayed by the pandemic and then again by the National Labor Relations Board’s change in requirement for in-person election signatures rather than electronic signatures. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the conditions museum employees were trying to resolve. The MFA laid off more than 100 people in August 2020, which forced MFA employees to take on harder workloads. In a vote of 113-14, MFA employees voted to unionize in November of 2020. The results were certified in early December 2020, and in January 2021 employees elected nine members to the union’s bargaining committee to negotiate the union contract. The union represents around 200 MFA employees, both professional and non-professional staff, including “curators, administrators, and public facing employees” at the MFA. 

The MFA Union has been negotiating with MFA management regarding wage disparities since March 2021. Eve Mayberger, an MFA object conservator and member of the union bargaining committee, said the museum “came back with a really insultingly low proposal, especially in light of everything else going on.” Mayberger shared that union members felt that “management was not meeting us at the table with a lot of delay tactics, [and were] just not really used to sharing some of the decision making power.” The stalling of negotiations was the main motivation to strike, with the goal of “forfeit[ing] a day of pay, and kind of go[ing] from there,” said Mayberger.

Tufts acquired the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2016, and they have shown support for dialogue between workers and the museum. In an email to the Tufts Observer, Tufts Assistant Director of Media Relations Robyn Smyton said that negotiations between the MFA and its employees is “​​a process that [the university] respect[s].” Regarding continued delays, Smyton said the university knows “both sides [will] continue to work toward finding a mutually beneficial resolution, and [the university is] hopeful an accord will be reached as soon as possible.” 

Some Tufts students, however, believe the university could do more as an institution to support labor movements. ​​“The biggest problem is that Tufts wants to work like a corporation, and it’s causing them to try to cut costs everywhere that they can,” said Hedvat. “It’s really important to remember that everyone is part of the fight even if Tufts tries to separate out faculty and staff, we’re all fighting for the same thing here.”

Quinn Hoerner, a sophomore BFA student at the SMFA, believes that there is a similar pattern between the way the MFA has treated its workers and the way Tufts workers are treated. “Both institutions prioritize sustaining the people in power such as Tony Monaco as well as MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum, [who] made almost a million dollars in salary in 2020, nearly nineteen times what the average worker at the MFA receives,” said Hoerner. 

Faculty at Tufts are also in tune to the conversation between the MFA and Tufts. Director and chief curator of the Tufts University Art Galleries Dina Deitsch said that the university is “in the process of developing a curatorial studies track, and the MFA would be a strong partner. How that partnership plays out, [the negotiations] will impact it,” said Deitsch.

The MFA is one of many museums and cultural institutions whose employees have recently opted to join a union, and their strike is not an isolated incident of labor unrest. Many different museums—the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—have been addressing demands for action on a range of issues from equity in leadership to dismantling racially discriminatory policies. “What you’re seeing in museums right now is that socioeconomic gap between your assistant curator who might make $40,000 a year and your board who are billionaires… that’s a lot of the tension that you’re seeing playing out in museums,” said Deitsch. 

This issue isn’t unique to museums. As the pandemic continues, workers have faced increasingly difficult conditions exacerbated by supply chain disruptions and global labor shortages. Across the United States, there has been a recent uptick in labor-related protests. Workers have been attempting to unionize in various economic sectors ranging from companies like Amazon to Kellogg

This rise in labor-related protests has also affected Tufts’ campus. During the summer of 2021, 130 dining workers ineligible for summer work were unable to collect unemployment benefits, which set off a series of negotiations and rallies on campus. Janitorial staff have also expressed discontentment with C&W Services—the facilities contractor hired by Tufts—and custodians protested during their contract negotiations on October 29. Dining workers, janitors, and facilities staff have all been stretched thin by the pandemic. 

Senior Leila Skinner is an Immigrant Rights Organizer Intern at Massachusetts Jobs With Justice. She emphasized the importance of students, when getting involved with labor issues, to remember that “workers are able to… organize and unionize themselves the best, they’re the ones most suited for them. So, oftentimes the task of the students is to just show up or to use their power to just support them. And I think that really comes through with the MFA Union strike—not crossing the picket line and joining on to those strikes.”

“The whole idea is that organizing isn’t coming up with the ideas,” Skinner said, referencing the importance of students listening to laborers and union members’ voices. “It’s about following through and showing up for each other even when you might not feel like you have a direct stake in the issue. The idea is that if you show up for other people they’ll show up for you.”

Negotiations are set to continue on December 3 and into the following months. According to Mayberger, in the coming year the union would “like to sit down and start hammering out the economic proposals, which we anticipate will be quite a process because of the financial world we are currently operating in.” The union is committed to developing a “long term working relationship… to make the MFA in the long run a more equitable and sustainable institution,” said Mayberger.

Going forward, the MFA will have to reckon with the changing labor dynamics within its institution, as the union is actively “negotiating a new power dynamic,” according to Mayberger. 

Depending on how negotiations go in the coming months, the union might consider other protests or actions in the future. If the union strikes again, Hoerner said “we as a society must stand in solidarity… because the rights and wellbeing of each and every laborer is essential.”