Art Gallery of Ontario Shutters as Worker Strike Begins

Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is closed today, March 27, as approximately 430 unionized staffers strike for meaningful wage increases and contractual protections for part-time employees.

Members of the 535 chapter of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/SEFPO), which includes AGO staff across the museum including assistant curators, archivists, food and hospitality workers, visitor services, researchers, and technicians, launched the strike shortly after midnight yesterday, rallying outside the entrance to the downtown Toronto museum with picket signs that read “Art is for Everyone and so is a Living Wage” and “Show Me the Monet!”

Today is the second day of picketing, which has effectively ceased operations at the institution since the strike began.

Over the past 10 months, unionized workers have been negotiating with AGO leadership, fighting for higher wages, standardized hours, and contract security for temporary and occasional part-time staff. Additionally, the union is demanding access to benefits for part-timers, who currently lack paid vacation time, sick days, and parental leave. 

“It’s very hard to live your life day by day, paycheck by paycheck, and that’s really precarious living for over 60% of our [union] membership that work at the AGO,” Meagan Christou, a part-time art installer and collections specialist who has been working at the museum for seven years, told Hyperallergic. Throughout her time at AGO, Christou explained that her work schedule has remained inconsistent, fluctuating depending on exhibition programming.

“I’ve also been scheduled to work and had work taken away from me,” Christou said, adding that there are currently no mechanisms in place to prevent the museum from contracting outside labor rather than relying on its own staff.

Paul Ayers, president of OPSEU/SEFPO Local 535, also pointed out the current pay discrepancies between AGO staff and the institution’s Chief Executive Officer Stephan Jost, whose salary was over $404,000 CAD (approximately $297,600 USD) in 2022. Because there is no consistent base entry wage for part-time staff at AGO, some employees are currently earning as little as $12.65 CAD ($9.32 USD).

According to 2023 data from the Ontario Living Wage Network, residents of Toronto and the surrounding area need to make at least $25.05 CAD per hour to live comfortably.

The labor action is just the latest disruption to the AGO, which has recently been the site of various demonstrations accusing the Canadian cultural institution of suppressing Indigenous voices and silencing pro-Palestine viewpoints following the departures of Indigenous curators Wanda Nanibush and Taqralik Partridge. Earlier this month, unionized staffers rallied outside the museum to protest the marginal progress made since their first bargaining session in May 2023.

Christou told Hyperallergic that another action item of the union has been to establish a joint committee for equity issues; however, AGO leadership “wasn’t interested in” the proposal.

AGO’s Director of Communications Laura Quinn told Hyperallergic that the museum is “hopeful” that it will reach an agreement with the union soon.

“The museum remains ready to negotiate and fully available to work constructively with employee representatives to reach a reasonable and fair agreement,” Quinn said.

But striking staffers have made it clear that they will not concede until the institution commits to a date and time for the next bargaining session.

“We’re really looking for public pressure to tell our employer to come back to the table as soon as possible so we can go back and get a good deal for our membership,” Christou said.

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