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Solidarity with Vancouver Art Gallery workers!

Art gallery workers on the picket line
Eric Lescarbeau

February 6, 2019

Workers at the Vancouver Art Gallery, members of Canadian Union of Public Employees local 15, are on strike after being without a contract since July of 2017. Their story is very much the story of the average working-class person in Vancouver, squeezed on one side by wage stagnation and erosion and on the other by rapidly increasing rents and other costs of living. On top of this gallery workers have faced what many of them describe as a culture of ongoing harassment, denigration and disrespect from their employer, the Vancouver Art Gallery Association, in an effort to demoralize them and devalue their labour. In particular, the employer has aimed to attack the working conditions of new hires and younger workers, pushing a two-tiered model that would divide them from longer term staff and create two classes of employees. Gallery workers refuse to be divided and disrespected and are standing firm in their demand for a fair pay increase and decent working conditions.

Vancouver Needs a Raise

The key demand of gallery workers is for pay increases that at least try to keep pace with inflation. Like most working-class people in the city, gallery workers are facing a major crisis of affordability. Over the course of their previous six-year contract, they saw their wages steadily erode as inflation outpaced wage increases. Now, after dragging its feet and pushing an endless string of concessions at the bargaining table over the last eighteen months, the VAG Association refuses to make wage increases retroactive to the end of the previous contract. This would mean an additional year and a half wage freeze on top of six years of wage erosion. Gallery workers are asking for a very modest 2% increase per year over a three-year contract, retroactive to the end of their previous contract and in line with the across the board 2% increases gained by provincial public sector workers in 2018. This is hardly even enough for them to keep their heads above water but would at least significantly slow the deterioration in the value of their wages and give them some back pay to make up for the employer’s intransigence at the bargaining table. Inflation in 2018 in BC was 3%, but even this understates the problem. The way inflation is calculated is often used to hide the real cost of living increases most of us are facing as working-class people. Costs for everything are going up, including rent, transit fares, hydro rates, fuel and so on. Many, if not most, gallery workers are renters and rents in Vancouver increased by 6% on average in 2018 alone.

Greedy boss

By contrast, Gallery Director Kathleen Bartels received a 40% pay increase over just five years from $250,000 to $350,000 a year, more than the Prime Minister is paid. Her salary is the equivalent of being paid $40/hr, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While Bartels is the highest paid gallery director in Canada, VAG workers are among the lowest paid. Gallery workers at the info table also described lavish spending by Gallery management on first class flights and other luxury amenities. Despite this the employer has repeatedly cried poor at the bargaining table and even sought to keep secret a $1.4 million-dollar budget surplus last year, which they reported at their AGM, but then subsequently tried to deny.

Access to the arts doesn’t have to come at the expense of gallery workers. The Gallery claims it has no money to pay workers a decent wage and treat them with respect, but they have no end of funds to pay for new projects. Currently the gallery is seeking to expand to a new building with an estimated price tag of $135 million, the most expensive such building in Canada, after hiring the world’s most expensive architectural firm to design it. Last week, the Gallery received a $40 million donation from the Chan family, one of Vancouver’s wealthiest. This is the largest donation ever received by an arts institution in BC’s history. While VAGA argues that the budgets for capital expenditures and operating expenses are funded separately, this is clearly a shell game. Operating budgets for many arts institutions in Vancouver and beyond have been squeezed after years of funding cuts from municipal, provincial and federal governments. These cuts were driven by repeated tax giveaways to the rich and their corporations. This has forced arts institutions to increasingly rely on donations from the same wealthy elite that benefitted from these tax cuts. In turn these elites expect to be given privileged access, wined and dined, and exercise significant influence over the direction of the arts. Instead of paying a fair share of taxes to support the arts, they use donations to promote their image as philanthropists. New buildings and flashy exhibits are worth significantly more to them, in this regard, than a decent life for the workers who work to install and run these exhibits.

Unity is the key to victory

Gallery workers in CUPE local 15 are also fighting attempts by management to divide and demoralize their membership. This has happened both at the bargaining table and in the workplace. One key concession pushed by the employer is to bring in two-tiered scheduling. Currently workers at VAG work on a 9/10 fortnight schedule. This means they work 45 minutes extra over 9 days and gain an extra day off on the tenth day. This measure was originally brought in two decades ago in an effort to reduce emissions from commuting. Because they often face layoffs for months at a time, some gallery workers also use the extra day off to work at a second job so they can save enough to survive the long layoffs. Management wants to strip this scheduling from new hires, claiming that it is leading to excessive amounts of overtime pay. The real story is that management regularly foists last minute installations and unrealistic time frames on staff and then complains when they log overtime to get the work done. This is the source of high overtime costs.

Management also knows that gallery workers care deeply about the service they provide to the public, having won several service awards in recent years, and have taken advantage of this to guilt them into working unpaid time. A steward at the information table cited the example of an installation that management rushed to complete in 13 days despite the lender estimating it would take 20. Not only does this push regular staff to put in longer, more stressful hours, sometimes unpaid, but it also means greater precarity for temporary and part-time staff who are hired in larger numbers but for fewer days, guaranteeing less security for all of them. In this context it is particularly galling that management has tried to convince their own staff how “valuable” they are while systematically trying to devalue their labour and denigrate their work ethic, spreading the lie at one point that gallery workers only work 67% of the time they are on the job.

The key to pushing back against the employer will be the unity and solidarity amongst gallery workers themselves, but it will also depend on support and solidarity from the broader working-class. Gallery workers, particularly older and full-time members, have been firm in rejecting any attempt to sell them on preserving their own conditions by selling out those of younger and newer workers. New hires at the gallery already face a precarious existence. While the City of Vancouver has declared itself a living wage employer, new hires at the gallery typically start at $18/hr and often have to spend years working as on call, casual, temporary and part-time employees. Of 212 employees, only 89 currently hold full-time positions. Most of the staff are forced to juggle two, three and even four jobs, according to one worker, to make ends meet. In the face of this, gallery workers need the support of every worker and every renter who is facing the same crisis of precarious work and lack of affordability in their own jobs and lives. A victory for them would be a victory for all of us.

A strategic fight

A victory for VAG workers could also be strategic for the working class in Vancouver as a whole. In 2019 contracts for most municipal workers in Vancouver will be coming up for renegotiation at the same time. An early victory for VAG workers would set a powerful precedent, opening the door to improvements for thousands of municipal workers and a key victory in the fight for affordability. By standing up for fair pay and decent work and for unity with newer and younger workers, workers at the Vancouver Art Gallery are showing what it will take to push back against the 1% and win real gains on affordability and decent work.

As important as winning these gains is, even more important is how they are fought for, a valuable lesson learned from the working-class movement in the Vancouver Tenant’s Union and the Coalition Of Progressive Electors (COPE) that elected Jean Swanson and has won a key victory on ending renovictions. This movement could play a pivotal role in supporting the struggle of VAG workers for decent work. A struggle that goes hand in hand with the fight for affordable living in Vancouver. This in a nutshell is the two-pronged attack working class people everywhere are facing. Attacks on wages and working conditions at the same time as market speculation and cuts to government spending sends costs for everything skyrocketing. To win on one front while losing on the other is a zero-sum game for working people. Uniting renters in their buildings with renters on the picket lines would strengthen both struggles and build the power to fight the austerity agenda as a whole. The power of renters to organize rent strikes can be built by supporting renters when they go on strike in their workplaces and vice versa.

Vancouver Art Gallery workers are calling on supporters to flood the inbox of VAG Board Chair David Calabrigo with emails: You can visit their picket lines at the Gallery from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. Send letters and messages of support to and follow the story of their strike on the CUPE 15 Facebook page.

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