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Citizens Union

Art for Politics: The Museum of Modern Art Strike

The teary blonde is a familiar image to lovers of modern art. But outside the Museum of Modern Art these days, Roy Lichtenstein's well-known print, "Crying Girl" has an added feature, a cartoon bubble that has her saying: "MoMA's base salary is below poverty level."

The image has been appropriated by the members of the Professional and Administrative Staff Association, or PASTA. The strike by PASTA workers against the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMa, is now well into its third month.

The two sides differ on the effect of the strike. Glenn Lowry, the director of the museum, said that the strike was having "no impact" on operations and that "attendance was up" since it began. The union says that is not true, and points to several canceled events, including a major fundraiser and at least one outdoor "Summergarden" concert.

Both have filed charges of unfair practices with the National Labor Relations Board. The two sides have not talked face-to-face since April.

Though under the umbrella of the United Auto Workers, PASTA is an unusual union in several ways. No similar unions even exist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney. What other union would mobilize protesters, dress them in evening gowns, and have them approach guests on the way to the museum for David Rockefeller's birthday party?

PASTA represents bookstore clerks earning $17,000 as well as curators earning three times that much. Many members have advanced degrees; some have more than one.

"I have a fabulous boss and a great job. And no one works here to get rich," explains striker Cristina Grillo, who works in the publications department. "But how much of your life can you give up?" She is striking over fears that health benefits will be cut, a charge that Lowry denies.

In addition to health care, other issues in contention include wages, job security, and what people in the labor field refer to as agency shop. Starting salaries for PASTA members are the lowest out of MoMA's six unions. They want five percent a year; the museum is offering three percent. Workers are also worried about their jobs when the museum closes its Manhattan site for a major $650 million renovation in two years. Union members want their jobs guaranteed after the reopening; the museum wants flexibility pending any reorganization in the new space. Agency shop is perhaps the most difficult issue. At the moment, membership in PASTA is voluntary; about two-thirds of those in eligible jobs are members. Agency shop would compel everyone in a union job to pay union dues.

As it is, the union itself is internally divided. About half the 250 members are not on strike. Some never went out. Others, especially in curatorial positions, have returned to their jobs -- allegedly under management pressure.

Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at Queens College and the author most recently of "Working Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II," sees the strike at the Museum of Modern Art as unusual for New York City's cultural community, and unlikely to influence it.

"However," he says, "this strike is interesting within the larger labor movement, where you see a renewed interest by professionals in unionization, like doctors and graduate students. At nonprofit institutions, it less a money issue, more one of respect."

At MoMA it is both.

"I'm in this for the long haul," says Cristina Grillo on the picket line. Then she points to a huge inflatable rat - the labor movement's mascot - that watches over the strikers ever day. In its puffy claws are signs that read "We Are On An Employee Strike" in English and five other languages.

Rhonda Zangwill is a writer, editor and teacher in New York City. She does not claim to be a critic, but she knows what she likes. She has been published in various special interest and trade journals, even some that are still in existence.

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