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Hundreds of AGO workers on picket line Tuesday as strike begins

Hundreds of employees from the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) gathered on the picket line as they began strike action Tuesday.

After months of negotiations, union members with OPSEU Local 535 voted to reject the gallery’s latest contract offer, saying it doesn’t address wage increases, protections for part-time workers and contracting out positions. 

Assistant curators, archivists, food and hospitality staff, researchers, instructors, carpenters, electricians and visitor service staff are among those now on strike. Signs posted at the museum Tuesday stated the gallery would be closed due to the labour disruption.

“We anticipate hopefully that the employer sees our strength and that it starts an internal conversation with them to maybe rethink how they’ve been treating their employees,” said Mark Thornberry, an event setup coordinator who has worked with the museum for 15 years.

People stand on a sidewalk holding signs.
Hundreds of workers gathered outside the Art Gallery of Ontario Tuesday to begin strike action. (CBC)

He says with the cost-of-living skyrocketing, wages are not keeping up. Precarious work is also increasing with people having to work two or three jobs to make rent and feed their families.

It’s all had a big impact on morale, he says.

“It’s terrible at the moment. It’s rock bottom, and that’s tough because people love working at the Art Gallery of Ontario,” he said. “It seems more and more that the employer doesn’t care about them.”

Gallery says it hopes to reach agreement soon

In an emailed statement, AGO spokesperson Laura Quinn said operational updates will be available on the AGO’s website. 

“We remain hopeful that we will reach a negotiated agreement with OPSEU soon,” she said.

WATCH | Workers on the picket line share their thoughts as strike action begins: 

Art Gallery of Ontario closed as hundreds of employees strike

10 hours ago

Duration 1:58

More than 400 Art Gallery of Ontario employees are on strike after union members voted to reject the museum’s latest contract offer. Ali Chiasson spoke with workers at the picket line.

More than 400 workers at the AGO went on strike as of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday following 10 months of bargaining. 

OPSEU local president Paul Ayers says public service employees struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic and three years of wage freezes, and cannot afford to keep up with inflation.

The strike comes as the AGO prepares to expand with the Dani Reiss Modern and Contemporary Gallery. It’s a 3,700-square metre expansion that’s being partially funded by a $35 million donation from Canada Goose founder Dani Reiss and is expected to cost around $100 million in total, according to the gallery’s website.

The expansion doesn’t sit well with workers like Thornberry.

“How can you have $100-odd million and not look to your employees and think, ‘Well, maybe we should make sure they’re fine, too.'”

In the AGO’s most recent publicly available financial documents, which covers April 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023, the gallery reported a deficit of $3.8 million.

A colourful sign says, "90's fashion HOT not 90's WAGE$."
Many of the AGO workers on the picket line held signs with messages about wages. (CBC)

‘No wages, no art’

Standing at the front of the crowd Tuesday, Meagan Christou, a member of the bargaining team for OPSEU Local 535 and a worker with the AGO for seven years, led a chant of ‘No Wages, No Art.’

Christou says their team is still hoping to bargain and don’t want a strike to last too long, but that there needs to be movement on wages and precarious working conditions.

“We’re being told by the erosion of full-time jobs that we don’t deserve to have a career here. So we are looking to change that,” she said. “This strike says that workers, we understand our worth.”

Signs read, "Art matters, what about the workers?" and "Modern art, medieval wages!" and "Show me the Monet!"
Somes of the signs seen at Tuesday’s strike outside of the Art Gallery of Ontario. (CBC)

Brian Sasaki is an art preparator, art handler and installer who helps to create and teardown exhibits at the gallery. He’s worked as a freelancer in the arts for a decade and says he loves what he does, but that it’s challenging to find full-time work.

He also wants to see the AGO raise wages.

“The issue is, I think, that they know that they’re the biggest game in town and that they know that they can push people around, right?” he said.

“Employers all across the country are taking advantage of employees. This is not just in our sector, this is not just at this workplace, this is happening to everybody.”

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