Art Attack: OPSEU workers stare down the AGO

Picketer outside the AGO on May Day. Photo by Shiraz Vally
Picketer outside the AGO on May Day. Photo by Shiraz Vally

By Gerard Di Trolio

May 1 should be a day for workers to celebrate, but for Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) employees who are members of OPSEU 535, it was a day to call attention to their plight.

Members set up an information picket in front of the AGO on Thursday evening during a gallery special event.

In the spirit of International Workers’ Day, several dozen participants from the May Day march came to rally with Local 535 members later in the evening.

On May 2 OPSEU Local 535 would have be in a legal strike position at 12:01 A.M.  After seven months without a contract and facing increasing hostility from their employer at the bargaining table, Local 535’s 350 members voted 94% for strike action.

At the last minute a tentative agreement was reached, but members will still have vote on whether or not to ratify the proposed contract. The issues at stake are all too familiar to workers in Ontario’s stagnant economy.

“The main points that we’re arguing are to have decent full time jobs at the AGO, or even decent part time jobs. Right now our workforce is two-thirds part time, and about half those part time workers are occasional which means they don’t even necessarily need to be scheduled for any hours throughout the year. Many jobs are being laid off and replaced with contract work,” said Heather Corner of OPSEU Local 535.

The AGO was looking for concessions as well.

“One of the major concessions was trying to reduce parental leave. They are also trying to introduce a wage freeze in the retail, and food and beverage departments,” said Corner.

“In those departments they want to introduce a two tiered wage system as well which is something we’re not willing to concede to,” Corner said.

May Day picket at the AGO. Photo by Gerard Di Trolio
May Day picket at the AGO. Photo by Gerard Di Trolio

Despite these demands, it’s not as if the AGO is in bad shape. The AGO came close to having one million visitors in 2013, with a number of high profile exhibits ranging from David Bowie, Ai Wei Wei, and some famous works from the Guggenheim Museum.

And unlike the museum’s employees, the AGO’s management is doing quite well. 31 of its managers made the “Sunshine List” of Ontario public sector employees making over $100,000 per year.

AGO CEO Matthew Teitelbaum took home over $280,000 in 2013. Teitelbaum also got attention back in 2010, when he took home close to $1 million thanks to bonuses related to the AGO’s fundraising efforts during its renovation process. While Teitelbaum was receiving this nearly seven-figures in total compensation in 2010, the AGO laid off 37 employees.

“When you’re only asking for a few percentage points, when everything is going up through the roof, and you know this town is tough to live in, it’s just getting more expensive all the time, I really don’t think we’re asking for a lot,” said Jim of OPSEU Local 535.

It’s important to note that cultural workers add a great deal to a city like Toronto. Many Local 535 members use their job at the AGO to pay their bills while pursuing their own artistic endeavors. To push them deeper into financial insecurity would only harm Toronto’s vibrant cultural scene.

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