The sell-out of the Art Gallery of Ontario strike and the subordination of art to the financial oligarchy


The planned $100 million expansion of the new wing of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto will be named after Dani Reiss, CEO of luxury clothing brand Canada Goose. Reiss has provided $35 million in funding, while the Canadian government is contributing $25 million through the Green and Inclusive Community Buildings Program. The remaining $40 million will come from private donations.

The planned expansion highlights the extent to which the arts are subject to the whims of the financial aristocracy, which is especially evident when you compare the wealth at the top with the starvation wages that employees at one of North America's largest art museums must grudgingly shell out.

Strikers at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Photo: OPSEU) [Photo: OPSEU]

The recent month-long strike at the AGO is an example of the extent to which the ruling elite is willing to subordinate the existence of workers and all aspects of social life, including culture, to the needs of the profit system.

From March 26 to April 25, 400 AGO workers were on strike. The workers, who are members of Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 535, include curators, archivists, food and hospitality workers, researchers, trainers, carpenters, electricians and visitor services staff.

They voted to strike by 58 percent in March after working without a contract since 2022, citing disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak and the ruling class's disastrous “profits before lives” strategy, among other reasons. The immediate grievances that led to the strike revolved around cost-of-living adjustments in the face of rising inflation, improved working hours and concerns about outsourcing work.

According to a press release from OPSEU Local 535, 85 percent voted in late April to ratify the collective agreement between the union and the AGO. Figures released by the union indicate that 281 of the 400, or about 70 percent of striking workers, voted for the agreement – not a strong vote of confidence.

The new collective agreement applies retroactively for the period from December 1, 2022 to November 30, 2025. Unsurprisingly, the union celebrated the end of the strike with a bombastic tweet and declared exaggeratedly: “The first strike at AGO was a historic demonstration of collective action – solidarity forever!”

They celebrated a wage increase of just 11.4 percent for part-time and full-time workers as “historic.” In practice, that equates to an increase of 3.8 percent per year. That barely keeps up with inflation and is not enough to cover the cost of rent in Toronto, the most expensive city in Canada and one of the most expensive in the world.

The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is nearly $2,500 a month. According to Statistics Canada's latest consumer price index, rents in Canada have risen an average of 8.5 percent year-on-year. But for AGO executives, who earn six-figure salaries, these developments are no cause for concern.

Management also agreed to form a “joint committee” supposedly to regulate the outsourcing of labor. Such a committee would only serve to further tie the union bureaucracy into a corporatist pact with management.