The New York City Labor Day parade is a major family event. Kids running everywhere dripping ice cream. People carrying banners, balloons and flags. Lots of flags, bearing old familiar initials: UNITE, UAW, UFT and, more prominent this year, SAG, the striking screenactors’ guild. There are firefighters, cops, autoworkers, garment workers, sheet metal workers. This year I was there for a smaller constituency: the museum workers. More to the point I was there to support my daughter, who had been striking against the Museum of Modern Art for four and half months.
The MoMA strike started in April, an effort of the curators, educators, librarians, film archivists, photographic services and bookstore employees. Their list of demands was short: a wage increase to meet the escalating cost of living in New York; a decent health care benefit package; and the installation of a union shop, meaning that all newly hired museum employees would be required to join the union or pay dues to them. Without this, a union has very little power when negotiating for their members.
MoMA strikers are not your typical union members. They are considered not artisans but arts workers who labor for love, not money. But with the economy booming and with the backing of its parent union, the United Autoworkers, the museum’s Professional and Administrative Staff Association decided to stand up for a living wage.
In the early weeks, press coverage was subtly slanted in favor of museum management. On more than one occasion, The New York Times described the picketers as the “very well-dressed MoMA employees,” as if picketing in their professional clothes was some indication of a frivolous exercise by elitist museum workers. I was also amazed at how many people walked right into the museum, past the picketers loudly chanting “Don’t go in!” These were New York liberal types who travel by subway, wear sensible shoes and frequent lectures and concerts all over the city, folks who carry PBS tote bags and really should know better.
My daughter began getting up at 4 a.m. to turn truckers away from making deliveries to the museum. She got chummy with members of other unions like the cop and construction workers stationed on the block. One of the flag men on a construction crew was appalled at her salary. He told her if she ever got tired of the museum biz he could get her a job making $50,000 with terrific benefits plus overtime. She told him she would hold out a while longer for $30,000 and a decent health plan. After all, that master’s degree should be good for something.
With public pressure building from artists, musicians and some politicians, negotiations started the night before the Labor Day parade. They talked through most of the night. We met across the street from the museum at 11 a.m., all of us wearing black for unity. The buttons we wore said “CONTRACT NOW.” I waited with people I recognized from the picket line, with people from other locals who showed up to lend support, with veteran union people whose stories went back generations. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Eleven o’clock came and went and the parade started without us.
At about 11:30 a stunning and excited young woman came out of the library and announced, “We won, we won and we got everything we asked for!” It took me a moment to realize this was my offspring. She looked so confident, in charge and actually taller. I got a serious hug and then she was surrounded by cheering supporters from the UAW, UNITE, the AFL-CIO, so many initials and buttons, so many new friends. We all changed our buttons from “CONTRACT NOW” to “CONTRACT WON” and joined the end of the parade. We marched with the transit workers and the autoworkers, between the salsa band and the garbage trucks. We got the thumbs up from people all along the way. One police man quietly said congratulations and then asked, what’s MoMA? We laughed, tired of explaining and besides, we’d won.
But what am I talking about? This wasn’t my win. It was the union’s win. It was my daughter’s win. But I did get to watch a very special young woman grow in confidence and power. I had the pleasure of hearing her articulate not just what she wanted but what she was entitled to, speaking not only for herself but for a whole bunch of unknown people. No wonder I feel like I won.