Skip to main content

More than 400 workers at the Art Gallery of Ontario voted to strike late Monday, declining a final offer from management that would have boosted wages by 3.25 per cent and given them more than two years of retroactive payouts.

Members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 535 will begin striking Tuesday outside the Toronto gallery, one of Canada’s largest, just as it prepares to launch a new exhibition reframing women’s contributions to European visual art called Making Her Mark. The AGO postponed a media preview of the event scheduled for Tuesday without confirming a new date, and said the museum would be closed that day. It was not immediately clear Monday night if the gallery would be able to operate beyond Tuesday without OPSEU staff, or if its unionized security team, represented by Unifor, would be willing to cross the picket line..

The union’s bargaining team told The Globe and Mail on Monday evening that 58 per cent of 289 members who voted on the offer rejected it, officially launching a strike. The local did not immediately comment on the result. In its notice that the Making Her Mark media preview would be cancelled, the gallery wrote that it hoped the parties would reach a negotiated settlement soon.

OPSEU members’ most recent contract with the AGO expired in late 2019 – after which the COVID-19 pandemic derailed negotiations, leading to repeated rollovers until late 2022.

Since then, the local, which represents a wide range of staff including assistant curators, art conservators, front-desk staff and technicians, has sought to ramp up salaries and protections to boost its workers’ livelihoods after several years of rampant inflation. They have been bargaining with management for about 10 months.

In statements, the union has warned that a growing push for part-time and outsourced work by the gallery has created an “underclass of struggling workers” who keep the gallery running as top executives reap salaries which, according to provincial disclosures, can range from about $200,000 to more than $400,000.

A few weeks ago, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that legislation restricting public-sector wage hikes to 1 per cent over three years was unconstitutional, prompting the province to repeal it.

In the AGO’s final offers to full- and part-time OPSEU members, shared with The Globe by the union, management offered retroactive lump-sum pay boosts of 1 per cent for the 12 months after December, 2021, 3.15 per cent after December, 2022, and 3.25 per cent after December, 2023. That rate would continue until Dec. 1, 2024, after which wages would rise by 3.5 per cent for the next year, when a new contract would expire.

The offers also included language that would guarantee part-time contract workers could not work more than 18 months without being converted to a permanent employee, with exceptions for endowed positions, covering absences and fixed-length contracts. They also included boosts to long-shift meal allowances, clothing and safety footwear stipends. Full-time staff would get an additional personal day.

Full-time employees would also have their compassionate leave-of-absence benefits extended to encompass pregnancy loss and time spent with immediate family in palliative care.

In its statements during bargaining, the OPSEU had said it was seeking minimum shift lengths, but this was not addressed in the offers. More than 60 per cent of gallery staff are part-time, and the union is seeking better protections, including around hours; those staff make about $34,380, the union said.

Protections for part-time employees were a key bargaining item when OPSEU members at the AGO came close to striking a decade ago, though the job stoppage was narrowly averted.

The AGO had a deficit of $3.9-million in its last fiscal year, which ended March 31. The Globe reported last November that Wanda Nanibush, its inaugural curator of Indigenous art and co-head of the Indigenous and Canadian Art Department, left amid concerns at the institution over her outspokenness on numerous issues, including the Israel-Hamas war.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe