So Many Secrets

A roundtable on cultural organizing in New York City

Last year, we created a show specifically by and for art workers. The podcast Art and Labor grew out of two friends from different artistic backgrounds sharing similar experiences and an enthusiasm for chronicling art-world drama. Through conversations with art handlers and Whole Foods laborers, close readings of Hito Steyerl (mom) and Camille Paglia (not mom), we’ve tried to drive home the same ideological points: that art work is work, and that the art world should end. The best part of our podcast has been connecting with so many people who feel the same way.

Whether we are drawn to providing a skilled craft, dedicated to the preservation of culture, or searching through our youth for meaningful work in a field that doesn’t drown us in an existential void, we have often experienced our time as undervalued and had our labor perceived as “unnecessary.” In culture work, as in all employment, the capitalist refrain that “you are replaceable” echoes through venues and shops. We are told that our exploitation is just part of “paying your dues.” These problems are intrinsic to a capitalist system in which all aspects of life from education to health care are privatized. We have also found that a union only grows stronger through the diversity of its members. Labor rights are not only for steel workers or coal miners. As artists and cultural workers we may stand in solidarity with everyone struggling for a better quality of life.

Solidarity is the opposite of bad vibes. It warms you up with the trust of those around you, and it can spread beyond your immediate community. Here, we have Haley Mlotek from the Freelance Media League; Dana Kopel of New Museum Union; Crystal Stella Becerril, member of the Freelance Media League and former community organizer for Study Hall and other community and labor efforts; and Kaitlyn Chandler from the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s newest union. Writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers are constantly pitted against each other in the name of innovation and entertainment value. If we are able to come together regardless of the rapacious and manipulative practices of capitalism, then we will be able to set a precedent against the alienating forces of competition to build a new and engaging art.

—O.K. Fox and Lucia Love, cohosts/creators of the Art and Labor podcast

 

 

DANA.— Kaitlyn, when you started working at BAM, did you have previous experience in art institutions, and were you already thinking about labor in the art world at that point?

KAITLYN.— I hadn’t had that many interactions with unions. I’m from the South; unions are rare there. I came up here and was freelancing, and I saw the position at BAM and thought it would just be a solid job. It wasn’t paying much, but I knew there might be room to grow. I didn’t know anybody at BAM. I hadn’t even been to BAM before.

HALEY.— I was born and raised in Canada, which has a different union culture. Beyond that, my sisters are social workers, my mother was a teacher before I was born, and then I worked as a makeup artist—film was my first introduction to how unions worked. The more I wrote about films, too, the more I learned about the history of the Writers Guild of America, East. I don’t know if anybody has read Monster, by John Gregory Dunne, but that’s a great book about how committed Dunne and Joan Didion were to their Writers Guild insurance.

I moved to New York four years ago, a few months after Gawker unionized, when I was the editor of the Hairpin. When I went to work at MTV News I thought of Gawker again, and started connectng those two references: Digital media is an industry like film, and this is a union that has protected those workers.

STELLA.— I got my start working and organizing around the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012. A number of people came together to form what became known as the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, which brought together people from different labor sectors and unions to support the teachers’ Strike—Nurses United, Teamsters, Letter Carriers—as well as faith groups, parent groups, and student groups. In 2014, the bulk of my organizing work was around Black Lives Matter. Then I ended up in Portland, Oregon, in 2016 and worked as a research and strategy fellow with the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the AFL-CIO, to try and figure out what strategies were going to work to organize low-wage workers in the grocery-store sector.

And then I ended up here, freelancing in makeup and writing and other types of media, including styling on commercial photo shoots. I joined the Freelance Solidarity Project in October of last year, after I had been brought on as the community organizer for Study Hall, which I was until April of this year.

DANA.— I don’t have a long history in organizing. I went to grad school for curatorial studies. I graduated in 2016 and got a job at the New Museum a few months after that. Working at the New Museum was exciting for me. I had never worked full-time in an institution before; my past jobs were studio manager for an artist, things like that. In the process of working at the New Museum and becoming close to some of my coworkers, we began noticing issues, some of which were across-the-board art-world problems and others that were particular to the New Museum. There is a real culture of disposability around lower-level workers. People would stay for a year or so and be totally burned out from overwork, lack of pay, and a toxic workplace culture. They would leave, and management’s framing of it was always weird, like, “We set people up to go on to do these great things,” when really people just needed to get out.

The other editor at that time, Thea Ballard, and I would joke about unionizing. And then in January 2017, it was shortly after the presidential election and the liberal art world was utterly traumatized, and it was also around the time of the lawsuit against Knight Landesman and Artforum, and the “Not Surprised” movement that briefly sprang up to address sexual harassment and assault in the art world. In response to all that, the museum organized this series of four workshops; they were open to the public, but staff were encouraged to attend. Each one was organized by a high-level female employee at the museum: the director, the deputy director, the director of education, and the curators. Mostly they were about sexual harassment in the workplace, but there was one organized by the the head of my department about mentorship and negotiating a raise as a woman. It was essentially a “lean in” workshop. That felt really difficult for me and others in that department who were making $30,000, $40,000, $45,000 dollars a year and had been absolutely shut down whenever we tried to ask for a raise. It had been made implicitly clear that we weren’t valuable. We were replaceable. There were no real channels for us to do the things that we were being told to do in this workshop.

After that, I had lunch with four coworkers, and we started talking about problems we experienced and different ways we might approach them. We started making a list of demands. That felt good, so we kept doing it. We had more lunches and after-work drinks; we gradually invited other staff members to be involved. Through that, we also got to know people at the museum that we wouldn’t otherwise talk to. Departments were very siloed and pitted against each other.

The question of unionizing came up a number of times, but because unions are still not that common in the art world, we didn’t really know what that entailed. So we reached out to Maida Rosenstein from Local 2110, because they work with MoMA, and she came to talk to us. Immediately after that meeting, everybody there was like, “We’re doing this.”

KAITLYN.— You guys did it so fast.

DANA.— We made that decision in early October and filed in the beginning of January. A driving force was that turnover is so high at the Museum.

CHARLIE.— Kaitlyn, what was like the timeline like for BAM?

KAITLYN.— BAM already has a lot of unions, so we thought maybe we should just join one of those. Then it became a question of, what if we’re making the wrong decision? We talked to lawyers, we had a lot of polls. At one point it was 5”“6, IATSE or UAW, and we thought that was too close. We needed more consensus building. That’s why it took a long time. In the end, we went with UAW. They knew cultural institutions, they knew nonprofits, their dues were low.

HALEY.— Was this your first time doing organizing work?

KAITLYN.— Yeah. I tried to join a union when I lived in the South, because they seemed like a good way to get more film work. But joining was a very convoluted process. In the end, it didn’t seem worth it. Especially as a woman of color.

DANA.— How did everybody at BAM start talking about forming a union?

KAITLYN.— We’d always joke about unionizing when things became intolerable. I had the tab open for unionizing on Wikipedia for months, and I was like, “One day I’m going to get to that.” BAM would always tell us that our salaries were competitive with benchmarks at similar institutions, but they never actually gave us the benchmarks.

DANA.— And because workers’ rights have been totally hollowed out over the past 40 years, particularly in the art world, benchmarking against other institutions isn’t enough.

KAITLYN.— That’s probably why the spreadsheet exists.

HALEY.— Just because something is normal or average doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s all part of the mentality that we should feel lucky to even work in this industry. But there is a strong historical precedent for unions in journalism; the Columbia Journalism Review had a good article about the history of the News Guild, how even back then there were writers who were like, “No, unions are for miners. We’re artists.” They wanted the cultural capital of believing they were Writers with a capital W, rather than workers.

DANA.— Before our election, somebody in management told a coworker that “unions are for coal miners.” It’s disappointing when people don’t see themselves as existing in solidarity with other workers because their areas of skill or expertise are different.

When MoMA unionized in the early 1970s, there was conflict between the professional workers who formed PASTA—which is now part of UAW Local 2110—and the blue-collar workers who also worked at MoMA. There was a lot of snobbery from the white-collar workers even as they were forming a union. Are there particular advantages and also challenges to organizing cultural workers that you’ve all encountered?

HALEY.— Once, at a meeting of media workers in a different part of the industry, I was asked if it was difficult to organize writers because many of them are celebrities. In the moment I thought that was very funny because writers are not inherently celebrities. Celebrity and fame can come from writing sometimes, but it’s certainly not a sign of quality or meaning in the work itself. But my colleagues and I did know what they were getting at, which goes back to what Dana was mentioning: How do you organize people who think of themselves as being either above or not in need of a union? I want white-collar workers to see themselves as being integral to a collective labor struggle, and to share that power with workers who have far less power than them.

Now, though, the more I think about it, the more I think the difficulty is not a question of celebrity but a question of organizing people who are accustomed to working in public. Writers are often used to publishing, to bylines, to credit for their work, myself included; I write to be read. But labor organizing, as we can tell even in this conversation, involves so many secrets. It requires intimacy in disclosures—private, one-on-one conversations, or small groups, in spaces where people feel secure and capable of true honesty. The organizing has to happen backstage.

DANA.— Stella, because you’ve had experience organizing a lot of non-cultural workers, are there differences that you see?

STELLA.— The biggest challenge, both when I came on as the formal community organizer for Study Hall and then as my own free agent participating in the Freelance Solidarity Project, is to get writers to see themselves as workers. Just because you have the privilege to be able to write doesn’t mean you’re doing a labor of love; you’re still producing something. I don’t see it as any different than a miner. But we are the generation that’s grown up with the least exposure to unions. We’re in a post-Reagan era: Everything’s privatized. Union membership has been at its lowest since before the Great Depression. All of those things have contributed to increased precarity which, in turn, has created this hustle culture, which is reactionary in that it becomes a badge of honor to be struggling and have five gigs at once, but we’ve had no choice but to internalize it for our own self-preservation.

Seeing the ideological shifts within the Freelance Solidarity Project from last November to now has been mind-blowing. At the summit, one of the key points was not so much “How do we fight to get health care?” but that what we need is universal health care. Instead of “How do we get better contracts and rates?” it was “Why don’t we have rent control so that we have more freedom of work?” I don’t think that conversation could’ve happened six months ago. I walked out of the summit that weekend and I joked, “I think we’re all communists now.”

DANA.— One of the advantages of working with people in the art world is that there’s a presumed politics, which is at least liberal. But the organizing process has opened people up to thinking about cultural workers and art workers as workers, not as this separate class. The New Museum Union had a big action a couple weeks ago outside of the museum at our opening, which was super powerful and well attended. We had some people holding “Honk for Support” signs, and cab and truck drivers going past would honk. This fire truck stopped and went wild. The remarks for the opening usually take place in the lobby, and they moved them to the top floor just so that they wouldn’t have to look at and hear us outside. But they definitely heard the fire truck.

STELLA.— In February of 2014, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra members went on strike. And it was crickets from everybody doing labor organizing. I was like, Why? And people were like, “They make $170K to start. I make $20K. So what are they striking for? Better wages?” I realized that something was missing from our ideological work: an understanding of the definition of exploitation, which is that you’re not getting in wages or any other benefit the equivalent of what you’re producing in profits through your labor. We need to understand what exploitation actually is, because the way that it gets used locally is this idea that workers in Bangladesh making H&M clothing are exploited but workers in America aren’t because we’re not living in work camps. But you should still stand in solidarity with each other because your labor is still being exploited under these conditions. And if you show up for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra workers have said they will show up for you.

DANA.— One thing that comes up a lot from higher-level people in art-world institutions is, “Pay your dues. I paid my dues.” It’s infuriating, toxic, and depressing for someone to essentially say, “I suffered, so you should suffer, too,” rather than, “I suffered, so I want to make sure no one else does.”

KAITLYN.— Dana, was it was easy to get millennials on board for joining a union?

DANA.— I don’t have anything to compare it to because most people in our unit are millennials and this is the only real organizing I’ve ever done. But I do feel like this discourse might be more available to us than to people a generation or two above us. It’s on Twitter. It’s something many of us became aware of with the wave of media organizing that started a couple of years before.

STELLA.— There is not much of an ideological difference between older and younger workers in the cultural sector because, despite generational differences, older people have been in the industry long enough to see it devolve. So they see where we’re coming from.

My theory is that, with these older generations, they haven’t adapted their organizing strategies to technological advances. Unlike the National Writers Union, for instance, Study Hall is run by millennials. We know how instantly we need access to information and each other, so we’ve built these platforms that enable us to communicate and navigate the workforce. And so the National Writers Union is hungry to bring us into the fold, because they see how quickly and efficiently we are able to get people plugged in. But there’s also plenty that we’re gonna learn from them, right? Like looking through their old contracts on things that they won 30 years ago that we didn’t even think we could ask for today.

KAITLYN.— BAM has workers who have been there for 10 to 25 years, and we really didn’t know whether or not they’d be into the union. But one person who’s been there for 25 years ended up joining our organizing committee. He was so gung ho and energized to fight. It was rejuvenating.

Do you worry about your future employment?

HALEY.— This question is hard for me to answer, though it’s the best example of what we’re really talking about, which is fear. This is a reasonable fear for us. There will be retaliation for some of the work we’ve done, and I’m afraid to tell the truth about how and where I’ve already started to experience that. I’m very lucky to be in the position I’m in, where I still can work for places that treat me well, and I’m very aware of what’s at stake.

One of the organizers at the Writers Guild always reminds me that the law doesn’t enforce itself. Just because we have the protections of certain laws on my side doesn’t mean that something bad can’t happen, and that we might need to expect a fight against challenges to our rights.

DANA.— I’ve blown up my art-world career. There are still not that many unionized art institutions, management at most institutions probably does not want a union, and I am on record multiple times saying all art institutions should be unionized. They will not want me there. I worry, but I’ve also had a real reckoning in terms of what I want to do with my life.

HALEY.— The types of jobs and the type of work that I would be willing to do now has changed so drastically. It’s not just who might reject me, but there are many jobs that I no longer consider up to my standards.

DANA.— Exactly—if I’m not going to get a job because I’ve formed a union at the New Museum, it’s not a job I want. I’m feeling burned out by the way the art world puts forth and profits from progressive politics and how little of that is actually enacted on a structural and sometimes even interpersonal level.

HALEY.— Sometimes the presumption that we share politics, or an inherent sense of solidarity, has hurt our organizing efforts. Often the people who are willing to be public in expressing good politics are not the people willing to do the work.

CHARLIE.— Dana has told me repeatedly that “a scene is not the same as an intentional political group.” At the same time, “politics” isn’t just a thing that an activist does. And you’ve all pushed against the “activist” as this figure that is fetishized by the very same cultural institutions that are also devaluing their workers. But politics is not this separate sphere that only activists can engage in professionally.

KAITLYN.— Haley, when you said the people with the loudest politics are the ones you need to watch out for—this happened at BAM. Our film programming at BAM is extremely leftist. Sorry to Bother You headlined our film festival, while they’re telling us, “Your pensions won’t be automatic if you form a union—and you may end up with less”—without acknowledging they would be the ones negotiating to give us less.

BAM has recently hired more women of color in VP positions than ever before, and that’s great, but BAM’s management and the majority of its employees are still white. How could you have that programming and believe in it but also not live it within the institution itself?

STELLA.— BAM is no different than those corporations that don’t give a shit about their workers of color but center marginalized communities because it’s on trend. The people controlling things are like, “This is going to drive visitors, and that’s what we need to bring in money. But that doesn’t mean that we’re gonna actually put into practice those things that we are putting front and center in our programming.”

DANA.— I don’t know if that’s always the case. The New Museum was founded by Marcia Tucker in 1977 with the idea that, like, everyone would get paid the same amount, and that people would swap jobs so that everyone knew what other jobs were like. Some people feel like they are still following that mission but simply need to prioritize other things. Like, “I just have to prioritize myself, and my partner, and my career right now,” or “I have to prioritize the health of the institution,” which to the people at the top means growth and revenue, not actual health, which would require fair treatment and stability of the people working there.

STELLA.— That is a symptom of the whole nonprofit-industrial complex, right? Where you set out to do something good, but ultimately whoever is in charge is concerned with how to keep that institution running in order to secure their job, and if that means sacrificing your politics, so be it.

DANA.— Museum boards are also a big problem, not least because, at this point, they’re largely composed of extremely wealthy people.

KAITLYN.— We have only recently gotten an actual introduction on who our board is, and that’s only because it was part of a city-mandated anti-oppression process.

DANA.— One of the things we have proposed in contract negotiations is for union stewards to have the right to make presentations to the board of trustees. Even that is a lot more contact than they give us now, and it’s still a fight.

We also proposed a diversity clause, which reiterated New York City’s nondiscrimination requirements and encouraged the museum to hire more people of color, particularly for leadership positions. Their lawyers redlined most of it, which was jarring considering the museum’s mission. But we want to keep pushing for those proposals, because they’re important, and the contract is the place to do them—and especially the first contract, because that’s where you put into place the rights employees will have when they’re negotiating the next contract in a few years.

HALEY.— I wanted to talk about burnout. I’m hesitant to use emotional language when I talk about this work, for reasons I’ll parse on my own time . . . but when I think about burnout, I think about the emotional register of this work. We’ve talked a lot about how frustrating it is, how annoying it is, but a lot of the time it’s a heartbreak. It’s not just like, “Oh, this person sucks”; it’s the feeling that somebody has betrayed us. There’s real grief there, a real loss. The summer after I was laid off from MTV News, I was often ashamed to admit how deeply I felt a professional experience take on this emotional element.

DANA.— I’ve cried in front of coworkers. I have to go to my job five days a week, eight hours a day. Even if no one is retaliating against me in a directly hostile way, I still go there knowing that the people at the top are waiting for me to become so miserable that I leave. And that they will be relieved when I do.

KAITLYN.— I never thought this would happen, but I cried in front of my coworkers as well. We were having the POC caucuses, and I’m one of the only people of color on the organizing committee, and I had my peers, people of color—there were managers too, they were ineligible—but they called me loud. People called me a bully. It’s like, I’m doing something that’s going to help us. That work is ideological and political, but it’s also personal to me.

The organizing committee is composed of a lot of white people, and you can’t solve the problem of people of color feeling like they can’t be involved in something that looks like it’s predominantly white, but POC are already asked to shoulder a lot of the labor in the institution; it’s difficult to find energy and time in our lives to do anything other than focus on surviving and living. And then, while we’re going through this anti-oppression process, people were saying, “All these white people think they’re woke because they’re starting a union.” Obviously a union doesn’t fix everything. It’s just a tool for economic equality.

STELLA.— You’re pointing to these contradictions that a lot of people are navigating. On the one hand, I wanna see more diversity, I wanna see more people of color, more queer women, more queer people—in all of the spaces that I move in, but especially in organizing spaces.

But at the same time, diversity doesn’t equal justice. You can appoint many people of color to leadership positions, and they can still have shit politics. To navigate those contradictions and not lose your mind—you have to have someone who you feel totally comfortable with and can vent to. This is heavy shit, and some of it I can’t talk about in formal organizing spaces. It’s important to have relationships that can exist off the record for your own peace of mind and for parsing the hard questions, so that you can come back and articulate these concerns and challenges to the organizing spaces you’re in.

HALEY.— I do worry about taking care of the people who are in this with me. These are my people; this is a community on a level that, until recently, I don’t think I realized how much I needed. Freelancing is so isolating and so alienating, and we found a way to navigate that. We found a way to build meaningful relationships and take care of each other at a moment of crisis. Some of my longest friendships have taken on new dimensions because we had never spoken about these values so openly. We didn’t even know how on the same side we already were. Then there are other heartbreaks . . . in the last three years, I’ve ended a lot of friendships, too. There are people I’ve loved, and I still love them, but I can’t have them in my life after finding out that they’re anti-union, that they don’t care about their colleagues, that they don’t care about anything but themselves.

KAITLYN.— The emotion of realizing that someone’s politics is just a complete 180 from what you thought it was, and that people aren’t actually there for you, is really hard. People have told me so many messed-up things, people exactly like me—queer women of color from the South. Your heart breaks. It says something about the assumptions you have about people just because they look like you and have a similar background.

CHARLIE.— How has press responded to each of your campaigns?

KAITLYN.— Press has been generally positive. BAM has a lot of members, and people in the development and membership departments are very involved in the union and are willing to wear their buttons to any function they go to. That’s really helped.

I will say, though, something that pushed votes and maybe made us win—I mean, it wasn’t that close—but . . . Bernie Sanders tweeted about us. That was a “Whoa. This is happening?” moment.

DANA.— We were jealous! But press has been generally quite supportive and valuable for us as well. The museum doesn’t care about its workers, but they care about public opinion, so being able to use the press to get our message out has been productive. One of the difficulties we’ve encountered is that many reporters don’t necessarily know how unions work, so trying to communicate the legal and procedural intricacies of organizing has been a challenge.

STELLA.— That’s why you gotta organize journalists.

HALEY.— I always used to be kind of like, “These are multibillion-dollar corporations, they don’t give a shit about tweets.” But I was wrong. They care so much! Even something as simple as a well-coordinated social-media action can change the entire trajectory of contract negotiations. It’s illuminating to think, “Wow, so this is the power of collective bargaining, right?” But at the same time, we have to remember there’s another truth there: These structures are so fragile, they cannot even take a hashtag. And these companies know that. They’ll be the first ones to tell you that if public opinion shifts away from them, they lose.

Recognizing that, and being constantly reminded of that, is a way of owning the power that already exists on our side. More importantly, it’s a way of using the power of people who might not have chosen a side: the readers and patrons of museums and movie theaters who may still be consciously coming around to an opinion and could be swayed. Like how we had so many people stop to talk to us at the action outside the New Museum, or coming across a tweet that’s like, “Bernie Sanders supports the BAM union, so I will too.”

CHARLIE.— Haley, what was your makeup theory of organizing?

HALEY.— I was thinking about how, when I was a makeup artist . . . People often come to you with a photo or an idea of what they want to look like. This is true of hairdressers and all aestheticians, really. You look at this photo and you have to discuss the image in front of you, but what you’re really discussing is a sense of value and worth tied to physical appearance. Somebody brings a picture of a famous person, and what they’re telling you is, “Make me look like this. I want this type of haircut because I want to be considered beautiful.” And of course this is such a common, persuasive idea about cosmetics—that you can buy your way towards a conventionally agreed-upon beauty. When you’re the makeup artist, part of the work is hearing what they’re saying and listening to what they mean. You have to say, “I’m going to do my best,” even while you’re thinking, “That’s not how haircuts work. That’s not what eyeshadow does.” Instead it’s, “Together, you and I are going to do something concrete to make you feel better about the way you exist in this world in this moment, to feel better about the way other people look at you.”

I’ve only recently started to realize that that’s the same feeling I have in so many conversations about organizing. People will come to us and they’ll often talk about very practical or even transactional needs. Like, I need to network with more editors; I need health care; I need money. Those are all crucial needs that are real, but there’s this subtext to it, too. Underneath, I find that what we’re really saying to each other is, “I need to find a way to exist in this world that doesn’t hurt all the time.” And we have to look each other in the eye and say, “I don’t know if we can do that, but together we’re going to do everything we can.”

DANA.— Wow. I’m emotional.

STELLA.— A lot of it is just, like, we’re gonna have faith that we can maybe move an inch closer—and that’s one of the organizing principles I keep at the forefront of all of the work that I do. It’s just focused on the next step. Because I’m very much a big-picture person and can lose sight of the concrete next steps that we need to get done. There needs to be a balance between that and being able to see the big picture, because if you can’t, then what are you working towards? But if you can’t figure out how to concretize that into actionable stuff, then you’re not gonna get there. A lot of the work I’ve done in so many different sectors has been that kind of balancing act.

CHARLIE.— How can people support your organizing efforts?

DANA.— For the New Museum, you can comment and tweet at us @NewMusuemUnion and #NewMuseumUnion. You can also tweet at and comment on photos from the New Museum’s Instagram and Twitter accounts telling them to support the union. We didn’t even ask anyone to do this, but the day after our action, the New Museum announced their plans in the New York Times for an $89 million building expansion, and the museum’s Instagram post about it was flooded with comments like “Support your workers,” which is really cool. You can also email info@newmuseum.org or press@newmuseum.org, or contact the director, Lisa Phillips, and ask management to bargain with us in good faith for a fair contract and stop offering us far less than we deserve.

KAITLYN.— We’re not in contract negotiations yet, so just follow us @BAMUnion.

HALEY.— You can learn more about the Freelance Solidarity Project here.

STELLA.— Unionize your newsroom.

DANA.— Just unionize your workplace.

STELLA.— All your workplaces.