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A Vancouver Art Gallery employee who didn't want to be identified pickets outside the building after unionized workers went on strike on Tue., Feb. 5, 2019.DARRYL DYCK

Vancouver Art Gallery workers were to begin installing the gallery’s blockbuster French Impressionists winter exhibition this week, but instead on Tuesday, unionized VAG employees were outside the gallery walking the picket line.

The decision to strike Tuesday morning follows about eight months of negotiations between CUPE Local 15 and management at the gallery. Unionized workers, including curatorial staff, front-of-office workers and administrative employees have been without a contract since July, 2017.

The union is unhappy with the wage offer as well as changes the gallery is seeking regarding scheduling.

“We felt like we really had to take a stand. There’s been a lot of resentment building up for more than 10 years,” said VAG curator Grant Arnold, checking in for picket duty on an unusually cold Vancouver morning.

“We’ve seen our pay fall farther and farther behind the cost of living, which is frustrating, especially when the director is extremely well paid.”

The current wage offer is a 4.75-per-cent increase over three years. The union says the deal does not keep pace with inflation and falls far short of addressing the cost of living challenges experienced by workers at the gallery.

The gallery has also proposed a scheduling change for new employees that would see the nine-day fortnight eliminated for full-time employees hired after the contract is ratified. The fortnight allows employees to work 70 hours spread over nine days rather than a regular five-day workweek.

“Part of it is from what I’m hearing is [gallery management] are concerned about overtime, but I’m also hearing that they have not managed the overtime very well either and have paid, in some instances, more than they should have,” said CUPE Local 15 president Warren Williams. “So for me I just have to put it back on the employer, because we shouldn’t be out here. This is not okay.”

Vancouver Art Gallery employees picket outside the building after unionized workers went on strike on Tue., Feb. 5, 2019.DARRYL DYCK

Last Friday, management made a final offer to the union, which was rejected by the bargaining committee. The gallery then said it would take the offer to the workers directly and have them vote on it. The union then announced the strike.

The Globe and Mail was told VAG Director Kathleen Bartels was not available for an interview on Tuesday. But VAG spokesperson Johanie Marcoux said the gallery believes the offer is fair and reasonable, and includes a generous benefits package.

“The gallery very much values its unionized employees and appreciates all their contributions,” Ms. Marcoux said.

The VAG has been campaigning to open a new purpose-built gallery and less than two weeks ago announced a $40-million single donation from the Chan family at a splashy news conference. That event also included the announcement of millions of dollars of additional private financing for a new building, bringing total funding for the project to $135-million to date.

The day after that, the union received an offer from the gallery it felt was inadequate. The next week, the union served a strike notice. “It was a slap in the face,” Mr. Williams said at the time.

Ms. Marcoux said it was a difficult day for management who were at work while colleagues were outside. “I want to stress how much we value our employees and appreciate all the work they’ve done and do for the institution and its visitors,” she said.

Mr. Arnold, the Audain Curator of British Columbia Art, was supposed to be installing an exhibition today. The show Affinities: Canadian Artists and France was curated by Mr. Arnold from the collection as a complement to the exhibition French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950. Both are scheduled to open Feb. 16. Ms. Marcoux said the gallery was taking that “day by day” and could not comment on the status of the exhibitions.

“They can’t install the exhibitions without us,” Mr. Arnold said. “I think the administration also doesn’t really understand the kind of skills that are required here, ranging from handling artworks, some of which are worth tens of millions of dollars, to the kind of skills that our AV technicians have. And I think there’s a lot who don’t know that and I think there’s some who don’t want to know that. So that’s partly what’s led up to this.”

The French Moderns exhibition is to include 60 paintings and sculptures from the Brooklyn Museum, including works by Cézanne, Chagall, Degas, Renoir and of course Monet and Matisse.

“I should hope that they come to their senses before it gets to crunch time for the set-up,” said Xander Keurvorst, who is a visitor services liaison at the gallery and was scheduled to work at the admissions desk on Tuesday, but was serving as a picket captain instead. “Everyone on this picket line wants the Monet to Matisse exhibit to open on time and smoothly.”