Museum strike highlights new face of unions

Sporting a large white strike poster around her neck, Jasmine Moorhead stands defiantly in front of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, waving her delicate, artistic hands at tourists as she urges them not to cross the picket line.

Ms. Moorhead is a member of United Auto Workers Local 2110.

The 240-member bargaining unit of curators, educators, and librarians is 70 percent female, and more than half of them have been on the picket line for the past four months, demanding better pay and healthcare benefits.

"We as art workers are subsidizing the tourists who want to see the art," she says. "[MoMA's] saying...: 'this is a privilege, not a profession.' "

Meet the new face of labor. It's more likely to be rouged than full of razor stubble. Last year, 2 of every 3 new union members were women, according to the AFL-CIO, defying the stereotype that only blue-collar men join their ranks.

"The majority of new workers being organized are women, and women of color," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, professor in the School of Labor Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "These are the workers that are most likely to join unions because they understand ... you only make gains if you act collectively."

And unions, which have suffered a net loss of 4 million members since 1980, are welcoming the less traditional crowd.

"The union is trying to show that it's still a vital and necessary group, keeping up with the times," says Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University. "They're saying: 'We're not what you think we are - we're not your father's union. We're not representing primarily men, and we focus on issues of not only pay, but on dignity.' "

That approach appears to be working in recruiting. In 1997, 39 percent of all union members were women, compared with 19 percent in 1962, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many of the new female union members are service employees, who work as janitors or restaurant employees, nurses, clerical workers - and some are white-collar professionals like Ms. Moorhead.

The reason for their growing numbers is simple economics: Unionized women earned 40 percent more than nonunion women in 1997, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Moorhead has turned to the United Auto Workers to help ensure she and her colleagues get better healthcare benefits and more clout in future negotiations. They're also fighting an attitude that experts say abounds in many high-profile, nonprofit institutions like MoMA: the expectation that workers accept low salaries in exchange for prestige.

"Quite often these cultural institutions take advantage of the workforce, knowing it's a prestigious institution, so they pay them less, especially women," says Professor Chaison.

One of the first nontraditional groups to band together, nurses, began organizing in the 1960s.

"Nurses are coming to realize that the union is a way to influence the decisionmaking in the industry," says Gay Hayward, registered nurse and coordinator for the National Nurse Alliance of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) The SEIU now represents more than 100,000 nurses across the country.

The women workers at MoMA are also out to change the way their industry operates and perceives them.

"The members of our union probably have the highest education, yet the median salary is $28,000," says Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110.

Next week, the two sides are planning to meet face to face for the first time since the strike began in April.

MoMA officials point out that the museum has a history of good and productive labor relations. In fact, MoMA has worked with the five other unions that represent its janitors and other blue-collar workers.

"We are proud of the fact that we have negotiated more than 60 union contracts in the past 27 years without a single strike," says a museum spokesman.

"Even since the UAW strike began, we successfully negotiated new contracts with two unions representing 70 other MoMA employees."

But some strikers contend that the desires of their union have been tossed aside by museum officials because it's the only one that's predominantly female.

The other unions at MoMA are not honoring the picket line. But some of the UAW truckers and carpenters hired by MoMA for their building-expansion project are refusing to cross it.

And the strikers are getting an increasing amount of local support.

Earlier this month, a group of renowned artists, including Oscar-winning filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Pedro Almodovar and writer Susan Sontag, published an open letter in The Village Voice in support of the strikers.

"I feel that the museum should honor the strikers and negotiate with them," says Robert Clarence, an artist from New Jersey who displays his paintings just outside the museum. "Even though I have a membership, I didn't want to cross the picket lines."

But many of the tourists who've traveled many miles to see Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon are less sympathetic.

"I understand their problem," says Enrico Casadonte, who just flew in from Italy and crossed the picket line with his mother.

"But we are in New York and at MoMA for the first time, and we won't be coming back for five or six years."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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