June 20, 2024
Art Gallery

The sellout of the Art Gallery of Ontario strike and the subordination of art to the financial oligarchy

The proposed $100 million expansion for the new wing at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto will bear the name of Dani Reiss, the CEO of the luxury clothing brand Canada Goose. Reiss has provided $35 million in funding, with the Canadian government supplying $25 million under the Green and Inclusive Community Buildings Programme. The remaining $40 million is projected to come from private donations. 

The proposed expansion highlights the extent to which the arts are subject to the whims of the financial aristocracy. This becomes especially apparent when the wealth at the top is contrasted with the poverty wages grudgingly shelled out to the workers at one of North America’s largest art museums.

Art Gallery of Ontario strikers picket (Photo-OPSEU) [Photo: OPSEU]

The recent month-long strike at the AGO provides a case study regarding the extent to which the ruling elite will go to subordinate the livelihood of workers and all aspects of social life, including culture, to the needs of the profit system.

Four hundred workers at the AGO were on strike from March 26 to April 25. The workers, members of Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 535, include curators, archivists, food and hospitality staff, researchers, instructors, carpenters, electricians and visitor service staff.

They voted by 58 percent in favour of the strike in March after working without a contract since 2022, in part due to the disruption caused by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous “profits before lives” strategy implemented by the ruling class. The immediate grievances leading to the strike centered on cost-of-living adjustments in the face of surging inflation, improved scheduling and concerns over the contracting out of work to third parties.

According to a release by OPSEU Local 535, 85 percent voted in favour of ratifying the collective agreement between the union and the AGO at the end of April. Figures released by the union claim that 281 of the 400, or roughly 70 percent of the striking workers, voted on the contract—hardly a strong vote of confidence.  

The new collective agreement will retroactively cover the period from December 1, 2022 to November 30, 2025. Unsurprisingly, the union celebrated the conclusion of the strike in a bombastic tweet, hyperbolically stating, “The first strike at the AGO has been a historic demonstration of collective action—solidarity forever!”

They were celebrating as “historic” a mere 11.4 percent wage increase for part-time and full-time workers. In practical terms, this amounts to a 3.8 percent increase per year. This barely keeps pace with inflation and is insufficient to cover the costs of rent in Toronto, the most expensive city in Canada and one of the most expensive cities in the world. 

The average cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is nearly $2,500 a month. Rents in Canada are, on average, up 8.5 percent year over year, according to the latest CPI report by Statistics Canada. None of these developments are of any concern to the AGO’s executives earning six-figure salaries.

Management also agreed to the formation of a “joint committee” to ostensibly regulate the contracting out of labour to third-party providers. Such a committee will only serve to further integrate the union bureaucracy into a corporatist compact with management.

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