A Union Rally at the Philadelphia Museum Draws Protesters Blasting the Institution’s ‘Stonewalling’ on Contract Negotiations
Museum staff unionized nearly two years ago, but they still don't have a new contract.
In the institution’s biggest union rally to date, workers once again gathered in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to demand a fair contract.
Part of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 47, the PMA Union is the nation’s first wall-to-wall museum union. All eligible workers, regardless of their department, are able to take part as a single bargaining unit.
“We’re here to let Philadelphia Museum of Art workers know they are not alone,” AFSCME president Lee Saunders said during the rally. “Their entire AFSCME family… 1.4 million members strong… has their back and will stay in the foxhole with them until they get a contract. We are all together in this fight.”
Staff voted to unionize with an 89 percent majority in August 2020, just days after the museum laid off 25 percent of workers. Ahead of the vote, the museum had hired an infamous union-busting law firm.
Nearly two years later, the union is accusing museum management of stonewalling them, and refusing to compromise on important issues, including increased wages, parental leave, better health care, and limiting the museum’s ability to hire temporary workers, among other demands.
The bargaining unit has been at the table on a near-weekly basis for some 20 months, but to date the museum’s “offers have been so low, they have been so insulting,” Local 397 president Adam Rizzo, a museum education worker, told KYW Radio.
In a statement sent to Artnet News, a spokesperson for the museum said: “The museum respects the right of the union to make their voices heard, and is dedicated to making further progress together in the negotiations. The museum and the union have reached agreement on over two dozen proposals covering a number of issues. Negotiations over a first contract can often take two or more years. The museum continues to meet regularly with the union and is committed to reaching a fair and appropriate contract.”
Amanda Bock, an assistant curator who has worked at the museum for nine years and is helping negotiate the union contract, told Artnet News she has not a raise in three years. “We want to bring Philadelphia Museum of Art salaries up to industry standard,” she said.
“The Association of Art Museum directors keeps really good, neutral data about salaries in the field across the country. Most of out bargaining unit makes about 20 percent less than the medium salary according to the AAMD,” she added. “It’s not tenable to pay those kinds of low wages any more.”
The union is also concerned that since reopening after lockdown, the museum has begun reclassifying many positions as temporary or term-limited, which means that a worker’s contract comes up for annual renewal each year.
“One of the unfortunate results is really high turnover,” Bock said. “People get to know our collection and how we work as a an institution, but that institutional knowledge is lost every time we start over. It makes my job as a curator harder, and it is perpetuating the instability that our union is trying to right.”
“When we ask management for job security, they give us ice cream parties,” said Juliet Vinegra, a museum project manager who has had a term-limited job for the last three years, during the rally. “We do not need ice cream. We need to be able to live without the anxiety of wondering whether we will have a paycheck to cover the bills and any emergencies that may come our way.”
Union members have put increasing pressure on the museum to reach a contract in recent months, with previous demonstrations staged on the famous “Rocky steps” in April and June.
This week’s action was the largest to date, with other AFSCME members across the country showing up to support their Philadelphia Museum colleagues.
“It was a sea of AFSCME green as far as the eye could see on our own front steps,” Bock said. “It was such a groundswell of support from workers from all across the country in all different industries. It was really energizing!”
The museum workers are part of a rising tide of unionization across the U.S. In New York, union negotiations have also stalled at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where workers staged a demonstration outside the opening of the Whitney Biennale in March.
But last month saw workers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, reach their first union contract with United Auto Workers Local 2110. In addition to the Whitney, that union has also recently welcomed New York’s Tenement Museum, New Museum, Hispanic Society of America, Brooklyn Museum, Jewish Museum, and the Shed.
“One of the challenges that we’re facing as an industry is that unionizing is very new to museums,” Bock said. “Museums are accustomed to expecting flexibility in how they work, but that has impacts for staff that do not always create good working conditions.”
In Philadelphia, the union effort has also come amid a period of turmoil for the institution.
The museum’s longtime director, Timothy Rub, announced his retirement last August. In addition to tensions over unionization, the last few years of his tenure had also included allegations of physical abuse by a retail director, and a sexual harassment scandal surrounding former staffer Joshua Helmer, who went on to become director of Pennsylvania’s Erie Art Museum—a post he was later forced to resign after allegations against him became public.
Last month, the museum named Sasha Suda, the director and chief executive of the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, Ontario, as Rub’s successor.
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