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AFSCME Council 36 reaches settlement with owners of shuttered art foundation

Photo Credit: AFSCME District Council 36
AFSCME Council 36 reaches settlement with owners of shuttered art foundation
By Mila Myles and Mila Myles ·

LOS ANGELES – Owners of the now-defunct Marciano Art Foundation settled with AFSCME District Council 36 this week, agreeing to provide about 10 weeks of severance pay to the private museum’s 70 former visitor service associates (VSAs).

The decision comes following months of negotiations and in response to the museum’s sudden closure in November 2019, just three days after employees informed management of their intent to unionize and join AFSCME.

"When we began organizing over two years ago, I did not imagine that our need for a livable wage and consistent scheduling would lead to closure, protests or lawsuits," said Ken Moffitt, a former VSA. "I have learned that fairness and justice are not given freely to all and must sometimes be demanded or even taken."

Paul and Maurice Marciano, brothers and billionaire owners of the GUESS clothing brand, founded the museum in 2017 to highlight their multimillion dollar art collection.

In response to the museum's abrupt closure, District Council 36 filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Simultaneously, Mofitt filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of his co-workers, alleging that the Marciano Art Foundation's closure violated the California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act.

The VSAs weren't going to rely solely on the courts either, as they continued to organize on the ground and online. They reached out to workers at other institutions on social media, encouraging them to form unions at their workplaces. They hosted protests around Los Angeles for weeks and even worked with AFSCME affiliates to stage a nationwide demonstration at GUESS clothing stores on Black Friday.

"Collectively, they remained committed to achieving justice,” said Ling Esangga, organizing director of District Council 36. “By staying strong and mutually supporting each other, these workers were able to achieve this settlement while inspiring others across the country."

Initially refusing to provide any compensation, the Marciano brothers maintain that their choice to close the museum had nothing to do with their employees' decision to unionize. They now state, however, that they are supportive of organizing cultural workers and improving conditions and wages throughout the museum industry.

Regardless, this settlement is a victory for the employees. It may serve as an example to other cultural workers seeking justice and encourage more museums and cultural institutions to recognize employee unions.

"This settlement doesn't bring our jobs back or immediately improve the lives of skilled, underpaid, and undervalued workers elsewhere," said Mofitt. "But within a larger context of injustice, it highlights the importance of all people to unite in solidarity to fight injustice in all its ugly forms." 

There is plenty of reason for optimism: only a few days following AFSCME’s nationwide Black Friday protests, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles voluntarily recognized its employees’ new union. They are currently in contract negotiations.

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Visit Cultural Workers United to learn more about the movement, and join 1.4 million AFSCME members nationwide fighting for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions.

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