Minneapolis Institute of Art workers picket museum as negotiations stall

By: - February 16, 2023 7:37 pm

Minneapolis Institute of Art workers picket outside the museum calling for higher wages on Feb. 16, 2023. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minneapolis Institute of Art workers picketed outside the museum on Thursday evening as negotiations over wages and benefits have come to a standstill.

The “informational picket” — not a strike — is the first time the museum’s staff have organized a labor demonstration in at least 25 years, as long as Debbi Hegstrom has worked there.

“MIA has a record budget this year. (MIA) continues to spend millions of dollars on acquisitions and leadership level salaries,” Hegstrom said. “We need to see the love. We need to see how much they appreciate us with a paycheck.”

The museum and the union representing about 150 curators and other non-managerial staff have been negotiating a two-and-a-half year contract since November, but failed to reach an agreement even after the contract expired at the end of the year.

Workers say the museum’s most recent offer of 9% wage increases over two-and-a-half years is too small and amounts to a pay cut given soaring inflation. The workers, represented by OPEIU Local 12, have countered with 16% over two-and-a-half years.

MIA offered to increase its offer to 15% over two-and-a-half years if nine of the highest-paid curators left the union, workers say, which union leaders balked at.

“I think that’s unacceptable. It’s antithetical to our union principles,” said Aaron Barger, a systems administrator at MIA and member of the negotiating team.

A spokesperson for MIA did not comment on the demonstration as of press time.

MIA workers have sought to ratchet up the pressure through negotiations, inviting two Minneapolis City Council members — Aisha Chughtai and Robin Wonsley — to sit in on negotiations. The two sides have since entered mediation.

MIA’s assistant and associate curators — who earn around $30-$45 an hour — also complain they rarely get paid overtime even though they often have to put in long days leading up to exhibitions.

Instead of paying time-and-a-half after 40 hours, as required by federal law, MIA managers encourage workers to take comp days within the same pay period or try to finish their work without putting in extra hours. In practice, workers say that led to overtime that they weren’t paid for.

Hegstrom, a senior educator at MIA, says they’ve been asked to take on more work since the pandemic led the museum to cut staff.

In 2020, the museum had to reduce its budget by $4 million, lay off 22 workers and offer buyouts to another 17. Museum leaders also took a 15% pay cut.

Its economic fortunes quickly changed, however and in 2021 MIA announced more than $19 million in major gifts.

MIA curators say the museum’s leaders tell them this year they have a historic $38 million budget.

“We know they have more money than ever,” Barger said. “We’re just hoping for a fair contract.”

The curators at MIA were among the first museum workers in the country to unionize in the 1970s, decades ahead of a new generation of workers who in recent years have launched union drives at museums across the country, including the Minnesota Historical Society and the Science Museum of Minnesota.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.