OPSEU/SEFPO In the News: Art Gallery of Ontario workers of Local 535 say #NoDealNoAgo

Workers rally alongside community members outside the Art Gallery of Ontario.

With no wage offer on the table, more than 400 cultural workers at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) are facing an imminent strike. These workers, members of OPSEU/SEFPO Local 535, ensure there is art and programming for public access. They literally keep the gallery lights on and doors open.

As public sector workers, AGO staffers were left behind during the pandemic and are feeling the cumulative financial loss of wage suppression under the now-repealed Bill 124. There are members in this bargaining unit that have dedicated 10, 20 years to the gallery. They’ve seen the AGO increasingly move to contracting out labour and the elimination of full-time positions while telling workers they’re replaceable – making it harder and harder to earn a decent living while an AGO employee.

Gallery management has met worker demands with disparaging refusal or lack of response on any equity-related issues they’ve tabled over ten months of bargaining: NO response to retroactive pandemic pay, agreed to by the AGO in previous bargaining; NO to minimum shift lengths; NO to protections against contracting out and reductions in hours; NO to gender-affirming care; and NO to enhanced benefits.

The union is advancing worker precarity and contracting out, alongside fair compensation, as key bargaining issues.

The AGO prides itself as a world-class arts institution tasked with public delivery of the arts and is working on a $100 million building addition, which will cement it as one of the largest galleries in North America. Prestige and expansion can’t come at the price of peoples’ livelihood.

Elite executives at the gallery are increasingly drawing on precarious, part-time work, creating a growing underclass of struggling workers.  Over 60% of the gallery’s workforce is part-time, making about $34,380 a year on average. Every year, workers are falling further and further behind the rising cost of living – in the most expensive city in Canada.

Meanwhile, most top executives make north of $200,000 annually and the AGO’s CEO Stephan Jost netted over $406,000 in 2023. Financial disclosure has also revealed that Jost has collected $391,940 in “consulting fees” from the AGO foundation between 2020-2021 alone. The gallery can absolutely afford to share the wealth and pay workers better.

Workers want a future at the AGO and they’re fighting hard for a contract that makes that future possible. The Local is picking up steam as they head back to the table – and media coverage along the way.

CTV News Toronto – “Strike risks shutting down Art Gallery of Ontario”

“A looming strike at the Art Gallery of Ontario could risk a full shutdown of the gallery. Workers are set to hit the picket line on March 25th if a resolution is not found. OPSEU/SEFPO Local 535 has been at the bargaining table with the gallery management now for 10 months. Priorities for the union include better wages and addressing the issue of contracting out staff positions at the gallery. The union says management has not been forward a new wage offer.”

Toronto Star article – “AGO staffers could go on strike later this month. Here’s what’s at stake.”

“If we claim the arts matter, we must value the workers that make that possible. Some of us have worked here for decades. Over time, we have seen the gallery turn towards contracting out labour and increasingly relying on part-time, precarious work. It’s getting harder to make a decent living as an employee of the AGO.”

– Local 535 president Paul Ayers

CTV News Toronto article – “Could the AGO shut down if over 400 workers strike?”

“These are over 400 workers involved in gallery logistics, maintenance, technical support, retail, hospitality, custodial work, and more – if you imagine what would happen if workers walk, a full shutdown is definitely on the table.”

– OPSEU/SEFPO Communications