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British Columbia Striking workers at Vancouver Art Gallery vote to return to work

A Vancouver Art Gallery employee pickets outside the building after unionized workers went on strike, in Vancouver, on Feb. 5, 2019.

DARRYL DYCK

Striking employees at the Vancouver Art Gallery will return to work on Tuesday after voting in favour of a new contract. This ends a job action that began last Tuesday by about 200 people – including curators, art conservators, administrators and front-line staff.

But some of the workers - who had been without a contract since July, 2017 - are disappointed with the deal.

“We’re feeling a little bit sick about having to vote on this after being out here for that long,” said Wade Thomas, who works in the gallery’s AV department. “When it comes down to it, the final deal is really not what we’re really wanting.”

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The four-year agreement, reached late on Sunday after mediation between the gallery and CUPE Local 15, was approved during a vote on Monday afternoon. CUPE Local 15 president Warren Williams would not disclose the result, but called it a “decent percentage.”

The four-year agreement provides a 1.5 per cent wage increase in each of the first two years (retroactive to July, 2017 – a first for the gallery, according to Mr. Williams); 1.75 per cent in the third year and two per cent in the fourth.

The salary range for the workers on strike is about $30,000 to $65,000 a year before taxes, Mr. Williams said.

The other major sticking point concerned scheduling. The gallery wanted to remove the fortnight provision for future employees, which allows full-time staff to work nine days over two weeks. That was taken off the table. But the gallery can go to the union three times a year and request to put those who are needed on a five-day-week schedule.

“That will happen starting tomorrow in order to get the Monet exhibit up,” Mr. Williams said late on Monday. French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950, had been scheduled to open on Feb. 16. The gallery announced on Tuesday that it will now open March 1.

VAG director Kathleen Bartels released a statement late on Monday welcoming the gallery’s “incredibly talented, dedicated and passionate staff” back to work. “We believe this four-year contract will keep the gallery on a path of collaboration, stability and future growth,” she said.

Mr. Williams said the agreement is something “we’re not jumping head over heels about, but we felt would be palatable.”

On the picket line on Monday, Mr. Thomas was one of several people who expressed dissatisfaction.

“We actually have a very close working relationship with management and we’re a close-knit workplace, so it’s a big deal for us to be out here,” he said, picketing in frigid temperatures with snow falling. “After a week of being out here, we’re voting on something that we don’t feel has advanced our cause in any significant way – a meagre wage increase below cost of living.”

“I’ve worked here 37 years and our wages have steadily decreased with the cost of living,” said Michael Trevillion, a matter and framer who installs shows at the gallery. He said the new contract continues in that direction. “With that in mind, I think the gallery should start to consider that people won’t make a career of being at the gallery because wages are now starting to get to the point of not being competitive.”

That appears to be the case for Britany Lawrence, who works as a preparator at the gallery on a casual basis.

“I’ve always had two or three other jobs because the wage is literally half of what I make in any other work that I do," she said. "But I [accept work at the VAG] because it’s an interesting place to be, it’s good people to work with and I hope it gets better; that it could be a conceivable full-time place if there’s room. But as of now I’m here for fun, practically.”

Earlier on the picket line, gallery staff talked about a poor work environment.

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“Culture is vital in our city and cultural workers like us must be treated with dignity and respect,” said the VAG’s striking public programs co-ordinator Susan Rome to a rally outside the gallery on Saturday. Rome, who co-ordinates school visits, has been with the gallery for 30 years.

More than 250 people attended the rally, among them visual artists who have exhibited at the VAG, including Geoffrey Farmer, Brian Jungen – and Rebecca Belmore, who spoke at the rally.

“On behalf of all artists, I want to say we support you, fully,” Ms. Belmore told the crowd.

Artists, gallerists and donors have been sending letters of support to the union – and to Ms. Bartels and VAG board chair David Calibrigo.

“I have personally witnessed VAG’s management style as an intern, a partnering organization lead, and most importantly, as a friend/colleague to VAG staff. Upper management over the years has cultivated a disrespectful and toxic work culture that undermines and demeans staff on a regular basis,” wrote Richmond Art Gallery director Shaun Dacey in a letter posted by the union to social media.

“I wonder how much you are aware of how deeply and how long VAG staff have felt undervalued and underappreciated by management, and the indelible harm this does to the work you are trying to achieve every day,” wrote Adrienne Fast, curator of the Reach Gallery in Abbotsford, B.C., in a letter of support for striking workers. “I myself have witnessed it for years, and I know that the poor morale of VAG staff is an open secret in the Canadian art world – I have heard about it from colleagues far and wide.”

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Another letter, from donors Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft, scolded the gallery for its handling of the situation, calling it “a serious strategic blunder” that could threaten the VAG’s plans for a new building, which recently received a $40-million donation from a private donor. “How can management so badly sour the news of a fantastic $40-million donation with a strike by staff?” wrote Ms. Beck and Mr. Gruft. “Very bad strategy and terrible optics.”

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