Storm King Workers Push for Union Recognition

Storm King Workers Push for Union Recognition

Staff members at the Storm King Art Center in New York’s Hudson Valley announced their intent to unionize nearly a month ago, but management and the board of trustees have yet to voluntarily recognize their efforts. Instead, workers claim, the museum is forcing a legal battle with the help of a union-busting law firm and attempting to classify front-of-house staff as “security guards.”

The SKAC Workers Union is fighting to form a wall-to-wall bargaining unit at the outdoor sculpture museum. Workers have cited ongoing disparities between full-time and part-time staff — including the “seasonal” status of in-person employees that effectively limits access to healthcare and benefits. In joining the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 1000, they hope to streamline wages and workplace protections across all departments, including visitor services, maintenance, curatorial, and development.

CSEA is the largest affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents units at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and the fellow wall-to-wall Philadelphia Museum of Art union that held a strike for almost three weeks this year. In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, CSEA spokesperson Jessica Ladlee lamented Storm King’s administrative delays, particularly given its stated commitments to equity in May 2021.

“The organizing committee members have different reasons why unionizing is important to them, but what we’ve consistently heard is a need for fair wages and benefits for all workers, a greater focus on workplace safety and health, stable schedules, and a voice on the job,” Ladlee said.

Last Friday, December 9, several SKAC Workers United members showed up to a private trustee event at the Century Association in Midtown Manhattan, where they hand-delivered a petition to board members with more than 1,100 signatories — including Storm King patrons from 32 states — asking for voluntary recognition and no interference.

They asked the board to respond by the following day, but say they have not received a response. In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, a Storm King spokesperson said that leadership will respect the NLRB’s decision before scheduling a vote.

“Storm King supports the right of our colleagues to join a union if they feel that is the best choice,” the spokesperson wrote. “We do not wish to assume that all staff who are eligible to join the Union want to do so, therefore we believe that the fairest way forward is for all eligible staff to have the opportunity to vote on the matter. We await the NLRB’s decisions and continue to encourage open dialogue as we proceed.”

SKAC Workers Union members protested outside the Century Association in Manhattan on December 9.

Founded in 1960, Storm King hosts towering sculptures and installations across its 500-acre Hudson Valley property, which will soon undergo a $45 million renovation. Workers initially started talks in July after Dia Art Foundation staff announced their union plans. Then, in October, they emailed a letter of intent to Storm King President John P. Stern. In his response, Stern advised that an election would be the best option and CC’d the law firm Klein, Zelman, Rothermel, Jacobs & Schess, which offers services related to “preventive and union avoidance measures.”

In the last few weeks, staff members have filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and held a hearing on the guard classification, which would divide visitor services and other staff into separate bargaining units (at the moment, the institution has no dedicated security department). They are currently awaiting results before proceeding with an election, which they hope to hold before the season ends. 

For Amber Bowen, who has worked in visitor services for two years, a union would secure their employment status. Bowen is currently classified as a “seasonal” employee, even though their schedule applies from the months of January through December. For that reason, they claim, the department often experiences high turnover.

“I’ve seen so many people come and go because they just couldn’t afford to stay there, or make rent, or afford to eat,” Bowen told Hyperallergic. “This is just not a sustainable job, despite it being in such an awesome place. Storm King isn’t your standard art museum — we really love being here and want to make it so we can actually stay.”

Bowen noted that they were among the only workers who maintained in-person operations during the COVID-19 outbreak, yet they still only receive mandated New York State paid leave — which is one hour of sick time per 30 hours worked. Bowen also argued that visitor services workers are not registered as security guards per state law, which requires a specific license. Visitor services employees at the museum make $17.50 an hour.

Alexander Liberman’s “Iliad” (1974–76) at Storm King Art Center (via Flickr)

“It’s been frustrating to have leadership tell us one thing and then do something else,” they continued. “But we are trying to keep our heads up. If their tactic is to drag this out, then we are definitely not giving in.”

Another Storm King employee who requested anonymity told Hyperallergic that many workers in the facilities, conservation, and maintenance department — which is responsible for both landscape and sculpture upkeep — are likewise classified as “seasonal” and thus subjected to the lowest pay and protections. This treatment, they claim, is a glaring reminder of how nonprofits really value their essential employees.

“It’s important that we see ourselves as part of a larger movement of museums and art workers across the country, who are fighting to change how our industry gets run,” they told Hyperallergic. “Storm King really touted that it was able to stay open because it’s mostly outdoors, meaning a lot of people have had to make difficult choices regarding sickness and family. Those of us in full-time roles really want our part-time and seasonal colleagues to get the benefits and pay they deserve.”

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