By Toni Baraga
Boston University News Service
This Wednesday, union employees at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts plan to strike for one day, hoping to address job security, wage increases and worker benefits.
In a letter sent to friends and colleagues of the museum, members of the MFA Union bargaining committee detailed what they consider to be unfair working conditions at the museum.
They claim the museum has been unwilling to provide guaranteed wage increases until 2024 while also pointing to insecurity surrounding benefits like paid time off and retirement funds and an alleged refusal to acknowledge issues related to severance and layoff protection.
“It’s just been really, really difficult,” said Martina Tanga, curatorial research and interpretation associate in the Art of the Americas department and a member of the union bargaining committee.
She said the union made an economic proposal, and the museum responded with almost no increases in wages.
“Only in the fourth year of our contract, a 1.75% increase. That doesn’t keep up with inflation,” she said. “It’s something that we weren’t even able to respond to because it was so lowball.”
Negotiations between the union bargaining committee and museum representatives started in February. As part of the bargaining committee’s economic plan, the group sought to negotiate wages by increasing employees’ starting pay to $20 an hour, or $36,000 a year.
“[We’re] really trying to create something that is going to be sustainable for the future,” Tanga said.
Currently, some full-time employees are making just over half of what the union bargaining committee deemed a livable wage. Gianna Marie Romanelli, a full-time visitor member services employee, makes about $21,000 a year and finds it difficult to support herself on top of her student loans.
“I’m in a bit of a panic mode here because once my student loans kick in, I’m going to have to cut back on a lot of different costs,” Romanelli said. “First one is mainly going to be groceries. It’s extremely difficult because there’s no real set path to growth.”
In response, museum representatives released a statement defending their negotiation efforts and support for employees, as well as their willingness to engage with the union.
“Despite serious financial challenges to the arts and nonprofit sector stemming from the pandemic and a slow return to normalcy, our goal has always been to recognize and support our employees, including a commitment to investment in compensation,” the letter stated. “We have made this clear in our discussions with the union.”
The statement claims the union committee went several weeks without responding to their own wage proposal. Additionally, museum officials said they plan to remain open during the one-day strike, set to take place from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in front of the museum on Huntington Avenue this Wednesday.
The vote for a one-day labor strike took place virtually on Nov. 10 and 11 and was passed with 96% of MFA union members in support. Currently, 90% of MFA employees are union card holders.
In November of 2020, MFA workers voted in an overwhelming majority to join the United Auto Workers Local 2110, which includes a plethora of museums and universities across the Northeast.
This strike follows last month’s ‘Striketober,’ named after waves of strikes that occurred across the country, including labor strikes at Kellogg Co. and John Deere, as well as a recently averted strike involving healthcare workers at Southern California Kaiser Permanente hospitals and medical centers.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows an increase in strike activity since April of 2021. The data provided includes any strike with over 1000 participants that lasts as least one full shift.
In Boston, MFA workers like Romanelli said they are hopeful for the future.
“We feel like we’re making a very tangible change and I think we’re also really excited to drum up support and to really bring our union and our union struggles out to the public,” she said.
Tanga hopes the museum will finally see its workers as indispensable rather than replaceable.
“I think there is a feeling that we should be lucky to have these jobs and that we should take whatever we can get,” she said.”If we want our cultural institutions to thrive in the next century, it really is on the backs of the museum workers.”