Home Arts & Life Hundreds of AGO Workers Hit the Picket Line Tuesday

Hundreds of AGO Workers Hit the Picket Line Tuesday

“We want to go back to work but we want to be respected,” say union members

by Benoit Guesneau
A photo of picketers outside the AGO in Toronto.
More than 400 AGO workers, including designers, curators, technicians, and front desk staff, are now off the job, according to OPSEU. (OTR/Benoit Guesneau)

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Hundreds of workers from the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) took to the picket line this morning to advocate for better working conditions for precarious part-time workers.

Following months of bargaining with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), union members at AGO recently voted to reject the gallery’s most recent contract offer.

Meagan Christou works at AGO, is on the bargaining team, and she’s also a steward for Local 535 with OPSEU. She said that over 60 per cent of their union membership is part-time.

“So that means no guaranteed shifts necessarily, no benefits, no paid sick days, no vacation time, no maternity leave. So we’re really fighting for those people here today and I’m one of them.”

But Christou said this strike is about so much more than just the employees’ wages or benefits.

“The conversations that the employees were having, especially at even the town halls we have internally in this building were, we do not feel respected, we do not feel appreciated, and we do not feel that you actually value us as your workers that do all the labour to make this building run.”

Charles Audu, Vice President of Local 535 at OPSEU, said if real change is going to happen, it’s important to get engagement from the public.

“We need to make enough noise for them to hear what it is that’s going on and what the people are saying and how the people are feeling and how those things can be changed. And [the] public is number one.”

Mark Thornberry, events set-up coordinator at AGO, said full-time employment at the gallery has diminished in the last number of years. “It’s also been replaced by occasional part timers and by having jobs that could be done at the AGO, contracted out to outside people,” he added.

The strike comes amid AGO’s preparation to expand. At the beginning of March, they announced that a $35 million donation from Canada Goose founder, Dani Reiss, would help to fund a 30 per cent increase in available space to display art. 

“If we get a deal [from OPSEU] over the next week, two, three weeks even – this contract will be up in about 20 months,” said Thornberry. “So we’ve had an enormous amount of back and forth and it seems that they don’t take us seriously and we called their bluff and here we are.”

In an email statement, Andrea-Jo Wilson, public relations manager at AGO, said operational updates will be made available at ago.ca

“The AGO is hopeful that we will reach a negotiated agreement with OPSEU soon and remains ready to negotiate and fully available to work constructively with employee representatives to reach a reasonable and fair agreement.”

Christou said she wants the public to understand that precarious work is on the rise, especially for those entering the workforce.

“And we have gone to university, we have had our preliminary jobs and now we want a career. So at this gallery, at the biggest institution in Canada…this is as high as we can go in our careers and we’re being told that there’s nowhere left to grow…you’re actually disposable,” she added. “And all workers are not disposable. All of our work is valid and that’s why we’re here today to show the employer what we’re worth.”

Thornberry said over the course of the last couple of days there have been negotiated settlements with other galleries in Canada. 

“The National Gallery of Canada just received an honest and fair pay raise, compensation for the next three years. And I hope that management at the gallery has a look at that and realizes how far off the mark they actually were.”

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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