Philadelphia Museum of Art workers win tentative contract


Starting Sept. 26, almost 200 workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) went on a strike that lasted 19 days. On the afternoon of Oct. 14, it was announced that a tentative agreement had been reached. “They met everything we asked for,” said PMA Union President Anthony Rizzo. Union members are due to vote on the proposed contract on Sunday, Oct. 16. (UPDATE: The new contract was approved, with 99% voting in favor.)

The PMA is one of the largest and most visited museums in the United States. Standing outside the museum, a landmark of the city of Philadelphia and a major attraction for tourists, picketers chanted slogans such as “No justice, no Matisse!” (a play on the common slogan “No justice/contract, no peace!”). The slogan is all the more relevant to the workers on strike because a new exhibit on the impressionist artist Henri Matisse is scheduled to open on Oct. 20. The PMA probably has the largest staff of any museum in the city, including gallery attendants, retail employees, and art technicians. All of the union PMA frontline staff necessary to set up the exhibit (mount makers, art handlers, etc.) were out on the picket lines.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art Union (PMAU) was formed fairly recently, in 2020, in a landslide vote; it is affiliated with AFSCME District Council 47, Local 397. Over the past two years, the union has been struggling to negotiate a fair contract. The most important issue has been pay. Most PMA workers have not seen wage increases since 2019. As recently as January of this year, some of the staff had been working for $10 an hour until a $15 minimum was set. The union has been fighting for a new minimum of $16.75 as well as a general overall increase in salary levels. The other major demand is better health care, as the vast majority of the workers are forced into a high-deductible plan.

In addition to receiving lower pay and benefits than workers at comparable institutions, the PMA union rank and file have other concerns. In a workplace where upper management and executives make huge six figure salaries, frontline staff members have to make a living within a culture of systemic hostility and abuse from those above them. PMA workers told Workers’ Voice about how normal it is for the higher-ups to view lower-tier employees with contempt.

Even worse, the PMA has had several high profile abuse scandals in the past several years. In 2020, The New York Times published an article highlighting extensive misconduct around and abuse of women staff by Joshua Helmer, who served as assistant director of interpretation at the PMA from 2014 to 2018 and later became the head director of the Erie Art Museum.

Around the same time, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article highlighting repeated verbal and physical abuse of the museum’s former retail director, James Cincotta. In one of the more blatant cases, Cincotta slapped a young, recently hired woman working as a gift shop retail worker. Multiple workers reported the incident but management failed to take any meaningful action. He kept his job until departing from the museum in 2018–two years after the incident. Failure to handle these scandals and other major instances of abuse by high-level managers and executives was a major reason behind Timothy Rub’s announcement to step down as CEO of the museum last year.

Another major feature of Rub’s tenure at the PMA and a point of contention with many of the museum’s workers is an ongoing reconstruction project to renovate and expand the building’s galleries. The layout and architecture of the project was designed by Frank Ghery—widely considered to be one of the greatest architects in modern history—and is expected to take a total of 10 years to finish. The first phase of the project was completed in 2021 and cost $233 million. Museum workers, however, complain about the quality of the project and feel that it highlights the disparity between the museum’s level of wealth and the paltry compensation it gives in return for workers’ labor. One PMA gallery attendant (who wished to remain anonymous) spoke to Workers’ Voice on the picket line, saying that the newly opened areas suffered “electrical problems, humidity problems, and temperature problems.” “They were running in and out of there monitoring all summer,” they added.

It was within this context—the relatively recent union formation, two years of struggling to negotiate a fair contract, high-profile scandals, and high budget projects—that the PMAU decided to take to the picket lines. On Aug. 26, the PMAU announced that it had filed eight Unfair Labor Practices charges with the NLRB. Days later, the PMAU took a strike authorization vote, with 99% in support. After continuing difficulties in negotiating, the union held a one-day “warning” strike on Sept. 16. After management failed to meet union demands on a fair contract (particularly on issues of pay), the union decided to launch a strike starting Sept. 26.

“Please don’t cross our picket line!”

Morale on the picket line has been high through rain and shine, with workers chanting such slogans as “The art museum is not fine, please don’t cross our picket line!” and “All together loud and proud, Philly is a union town!” A giant inflatable “scabby rat” and a “fat cat” were placed in front of the facades of the mammoth museum (designed by prominent Black architect Julian Abele and made famous by the film “Rocky”). A rally in solidarity with the PMAU workers took place in front of the museum during the 45th Convention of AFSCME this summer, following another rally during the AFL-CIO national convention. Curious visitors approaching the museum have been politely told that the workers of the museum are fighting for their well being and a fair contract and that entering the museum is inadvisable as the building and its contents are currently not being adequately taken care of.

One picketer told Workers’ Voice, “The strike for me is about keeping employees at the museum. I’ve been here for six years, and I’d love to build my career here—and that’s just not sustainable if things keep going the way they are. So many people whom I respect, who have been working here for decades, are leaving because it’s not sustainable to work here anymore.”

Striker Merideth Winter told our reporters: “The strike brought people who didn’t know each other together in a really cohesive way. It’s so easy to divide the workforce, and I think it’s amazing that we were expecting three days, and in three weeks people who had never spoken to one another became friends.” Shakerra Grace said, “This is exciting and I hope we set a precedent for other museum unions. We deserve fair pay.” Another striker said, “We set an example for the museum industry and museum professionals everywhere. It shows that our labor means something.”

The beginning of the strike, as it turned out, coincided with Sasha Suda’s (Timothy Rub’s successor as CEO of the PMA) first day on the job. Some have interpreted the introduction of Sasha Suda as a symbolic change of face for the PMA, especially after the exposure of the mistreatment of women staff. However, the workers on the picket lines seemed more pessimistic.

For a while in negotiations, the only major point of agreement had been an increase of four weeks for parental leave. The union had rejected an offer of an 11% wage increase by July 2024 and a 10% increase in the minimum annual salary, stating that it was not enough. In fact, management failed to show up to a bargaining session on Sept. 30. In the meantime, the PMA hired the well-known union-busting firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.

In this situation, it has been incredibly important for the strike and the union to receive support from other labor groups and the broader community. Support has come from unions and union members, including the Teamsters, AFSCME, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and UNITE HERE, activists in the Save UC Townhomes Coalition (part of an ongoing fight to curb gentrification in West Philadelphia), and socialist organizations. The PMAU opened a strike support fund and continues to welcome any and all contributions.

There has also been a strong show of support for the strike online. This week, comments were disabled from the PMA’s Instagram account due to an overwhelming flood of pro-union messages of support.

What has been gained?

On the afternoon of Oct. 14, it was announced that the union and management had come to a tentative agreement, with the PMA management accepting all of the union’s demands. The proposed contract would include the following:

  • 14% pay raise over the course of the three-year contract (11% by July 2024), retroactive to July 2022
  • Longevity pay; every five years an amount will be added to paychecks based on terms of service
  • Less expensive health care; reduced cost of the high deductible health care plan (which most staff members are on)
  • Accelerated eligibility for health care and paid time off.
  • Four weeks of paid parental leave
  • Raise in the minimum wage from $15 to $16.75/hr.
  • Job security protections that will rely on union jobs rather than temporary workers

Beyond just a labor action, the successful PMA strike is an important part of the ongoing upsurge in labor activity in museums across the country. Last year, UAW members at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City won a historic fair contract. Months later, members of the same UAW local at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston went on strike. In May of this year, AFSCME staff at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles secured higher pay and benefits. In the past two years there have been successful union organizing drives at the Whitney Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Walker Art Center, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Most recently, on Oct. 13, staff at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (one of the largest science museums in the world) announced a drive to affiliate with AFSCME.

For many, this upsurge calls into question the traditional role of museums as institutions of education and community. The PMA and similar museums are both institutions of public history that carry an implicit responsibility to educate the public as well as institutions that employ workers with human needs. In conjunction with this is a growing awareness among museum professionals about issues of race and class in museum settings, with initiatives such as Museums Are Not Neutral growing out of the Black Lives Matter movement.

One gallery attendant at the PMA told Workers’ Voice how, in their opinion, the oppression of workers on the part of museum executives is reflective of the broader history of the PMA, the colonization of Philadelphia, and the United States in general. “The Philadelphia Museum of Art is racist and classist,” they said. “What would you expect from those higher-ups that make easy money off of stolen Lenape land—but they can’t even pay their staff enough to come to work and go home and sustain themselves? That doesn’t sound like ‘brotherly love’.”

The same worker also spoke of the PMA’s inadequacy in handling issues concerning oppressed peoples currently and in the past. They said that in spite of increased efforts to highlight Black artists in the galleries, the museum consistently fails to utilize pieces from their own collection. This is much to the detriment of the huge Black population in the city that they serve.

One especially blatant example of a failure to highlight a Black artist has to do with the architect who originally designed the PMA’s main building in the early 20th century—Julian Abele. Abele was the first notable African American architect and can easily be considered as one of the country’s greatest architectural minds, designing landmark buildings such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Public Library, Harvard’s Widener Library (the main library of Harvard’s campus), and numerous buildings on Duke University’s campus. The long web page about the Frank Ghery renovation on the PMA’s website, for example, merely makes a cursory mention of Abele’s name. There is no plaque, sign, or label inside the museum crediting Abele. “Are they trying to keep it a secret?” asked the gallery attendant quoted above.

Workers’ Voice stands in solidarity with the Philadelphia Museum of Art Union and applauds their fight for unionization and a fair contract.

Photo: John Leslie / Workers’ Voice

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