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Seeking a higher minimum wage, MASS MoCA workers begin 'indefinite strike'

 Unionized workers at MASS MoCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts, went on strike March 6, 2024, seeking a higher hourly minimum wage.
Western Mass Area Labor Federation
Unionized workers at MASS MoCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts, went on strike March 6, 2024, seeking a higher hourly minimum wage.

Carrying signs that say "North Adams is a union town" and "Contemporary art, unfortunately not contemporary wages," unionized workers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art went on strike Wednesday, following through on a threat if no agreement was reached with the museum.

MASS MoCA and employees have been negotiating since last October. The union's most recent proposal called for a minimum hourly wage of $18.25 The museum's last offer was $17.25.

"That is entry level, walking in the door," said Meg Labbee, who has worked at the museum since 1999.

Taking a break from the picket line, Labbee said that rate is what custodians, museum gallery attendants, tour guides and entry-level retail workers make — about 60% of the museum's union workers.

"If I was at work today, I would be coordinating all the hotels for the upcoming show this Saturday, for the artists coming this weekend," Labbee said. "I would be coordinating dinners for them, gallery tours and anything to give the artist the best experience while they're here."

As director of Mass MoCA's artist services and intern program, Labbee said she makes higher than the minimum hourly wage sought by the union.

Museum to remain open

A museum spokesperson declined an interview request as management is "in the midst of supporting our staff with the museum being open." Two exhibits — "Laurie Anderson To the Moon" and "Chalkroom VR" — are closed Wednesday, the museum said.

In its statement, MASS MoCA said it had been bargaining for several months in good faith, proposing wage adjustments for all employees. Its last wage offer, toward the end of February, wwould have been retroactive to January 1. The museum said it also offered a 3.5% across-the-board salary increase.

“We are extremely disappointed that the United Auto Workers union has decided to reject our wage increase offer by taking action against MASS MoCA in the form of an indefinite strike,” museum director Kristy Edmunds said in the statement.

"In the span of three years," she said, "we have implemented equity increases at every level ... and funded a variety of innovative employee support programs that include student loan, elder and child care offsets."

The museum said it can't agree to union terms that will "diminish our mission or operational sustainability."

Referring to the $17.25 an hourly minimum wage offer from the museum, Chelsea Farrell from the United Auto Workers said MASS MoCA's offer doesn't provide a livable wage in Berkshire County.

"We're disappointed to be at this point in our process. But hopefully through this disruption, management will see that they need to offer fair and sustainable wages and to stop treating our workers as expendable," Farrell said Monday.

The union, formed in April 2021, previously held a one-day strike in August 2022.

Other affected businesses

The strike will also disrupt several businesses on the MASS MoCA campus, near or adjacent to the museum's entrance.

The owner of Bright Ideas Brewing, Orion Howard, announced on Facebook Wednesday that, as the son and grandson of labor organizers, with a "lifelong understanding and support for the role of collective bargaining," he supports both the museum and its employees.

"In seeking to balance my different layers of support, I have decided to close [the brewery] until 5 PM today, after the picket line has ended," Orion said.

Another business, Lickety Split, posted on Facebook they were concerned about losing business and paying their own staff.

"We are caught in the middle of a difficult conflict. We will hold on as long as we can hoping this conflict will be resolved soon. We will be here!"

Some of tthe restaurant's patrons are picketing, they said on Facebook.

"If you want to continue to support us from the picket lines please use our online ordering system & in the comments let us know that you are on the line and we will deliver your food past the gates & as always we offer curbside pick up to those of you who choose not to cross picket lines!" they said.

Disclosure: MASS MoCA is an underwriter of New England Public Media, however that does not influence our news coverage.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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