Philadelphia Museum of Art workers won a first contract after a 19-day strike. Photo: Tim Tiebot
After a 19-day strike, members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) union voted overwhelmingly in October to approve their first contract. Daily pickets had cut into the museum’s attendance and impacted preparation for an anticipated exhibit on the works of French painter Henri Matisse.
After two years of stalled negotiations, the 180 workers of AFSCME Local 397 forced the museum’s hand and attracted public support that placed the museum’s well-crafted reputation at risk.
The agreement includes a 14 percent raise over three years, an extra $500 for every five years of employment, a larger employer contribution to health care coverage, and, for the first time, four weeks of paid parental leave.
Low pay and poor job security are longstanding problems at cultural institutions. Museum work requires an array of technical skills and qualifications to preserve, display, and present historic works of art. Employers often exploit workers’ desires to work with these materials to undervalue their labor.
Adam Rizzo has worked in the museum’s education department as an early childhood programs coordinator for eight years, and now serves as Local 397 president. Before he got his official offer to work at the museum, he says his manager reminded him, “Obviously, we don’t do this for the money.”
“You have to be able to do years of unpaid internships to get your foot in the door,” Rizzo says. “Once you do that, you have to be able to accept a starting salary of $30,000 a year.” These expectations push many people out of the industry.
Sarah Roche, who has worked part-time roles at the PMA for 25 years, has seen many dedicated colleagues move on once they have children. “It hasn’t been a place with a family-sustaining wage,” she said. Most of the museum workers are women—another factor in the low pay.
Workers at the PMA first started talking about organizing in 2019. That spring, museum workers across the country began to share their salaries on an anonymous spreadsheet.
PMA workers could see clear disparities, both within their own departments and in comparison to other museums. Joseph Hu, a museum photographer, was shocked that “a lot of the people that did such great work, and that I depended on, were making so little.”
Rizzo and his co-workers in the education department discovered unexpected differences in their pay. Lindsey Bloom, now the local’s vice president, works in the same role as Rizzo and has several more years seniority—yet he was making nearly $10,000 more a year than she was.
They started speaking with co-workers—first within their department, then beyond.
Pay wasn’t the only issue. Multiple workers described a toxic culture where sexual harassment, physical intimidation, and workplace bullying were left unaddressed. “Everyone is feeling this,” Bloom realized, “but we’ve never actually talked to each other, so we didn’t know this was larger than our department.”
With several co-workers, they formed an organizing committee. Bloom focused on figuring out how unions had organized in similar workplaces like the Tenement Museum in New York, where workers voted to join Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110 in April 2019. “I was just calling these people, taking notes, and then I would go back to our meetings and be like, ‘This is how they did it.’”
The committee held weekly meetings to track support and recruit co-workers. Before long they were ready to partner with an existing union. They chose AFSCME District Council 47, which represents workers in nonprofits, higher education, and local government in Philadelphia.
With DC 47’s support, PMA workers filed for union recognition. Although their initial election was delayed by the outbreak of the pandemic, the committee regained momentum and won the vote in July 2020.
The new union hit the ground running on its contract campaign, putting out a survey to members about their priorities.
Workers face a daunting task to win a first contract. Bosses will drag out the process in hopes that workers will give up—and the PMA proved no exception to this rule.
Management hired the anti-union law firm Morgan Lewis to handle negotiations. The museum and its attorneys refused even basic concessions on pay or workplace protections, stretching out negotiations for two years.
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When members elected a negotiating committee, they also approved open bargaining, inviting everyone to observe negotiations. Forty workers at a time would join meetings, often only to find management spending entire sessions in private conversations, reviewing proposals they had received well in advance.
The blatant disrespect drove Hu and others in the union over the edge. “I have a family, so carving out two to three hours after work and nothing happening is irritating,” he said. “It’s a waste of my time, which is their intent.”
By now it was 2022, and the museum hadn’t given raises since 2019. For Chris Havlish, an art handler in his sixteenth year at the museum, this put immense pressure on negotiations. “Life has gotten so difficult financially,” he said. “The cost of living has gone up remarkably and it is becoming unsustainable to keep this job.”
The union prepared to strike. Meanwhile, over the summer, they filed unfair labor practice charges against the museum, which would give their strike some legal protection, and established a strike fund committee.
Members approved a one-day warning strike at their largest-ever meeting on August 30. On September 16, they walked out for the day and picketed the museum alongside community supporters.
The message came through loud and clear: members were done waiting. Previously management had refused the union’s request to extend bargaining sessions beyond three hours. But after the warning strike, management agreed to longer sessions and the two sides finally made progress, including on an anti-harassment policy, a top priority for the union.
“But when it came to the economic package,” Rizzo says, “they shut it down.” On raises, minimum wages, and health care, the museum refused to budge. A report from Philadelphia’s City Council estimated the union’s demands would cost the museum—which receives significant subsidies from the city—$300,000 a year. Compared to the CEO’s salary of $700,000, this was a paltry sum.
Workers knew the museum was in a vulnerable position as it prepared to open the “Matisse in the 1930s” exhibit on October 20. The exhibition was an international collaboration years in the making, and the museum was banking on a big premiere.
Workers decided to seize their moment, walking out on an indefinite strike September 26. They set up picket lines at each open entrance.
Thirty members volunteered as strike captains, each responsible for communicating with a group of seven members to keep them plugged into each day’s picket.
The museum gave the strikers the silent treatment. Management revoked workers’ access to email and cut off communication with the union, canceling negotiations two weeks in a row.
Its only public acknowledgement of the strike was to announce the museum would stay open and the Matisse exhibit would open on time. When the museum’s Twitter account was overwhelmed with pro-union pushback, it shut down replies, inviting even more ridicule.
In contrast, the union invited the public to be a part of its strike. Members told their story in media interviews and a city council meeting. Local unions and the Democratic Socialists of America turned out to picket lines; local politicians spoke at rallies. Lee Saunders, the president of AFSCME, and Liz Shuler, the head of the AFL-CIO, came to Philly to show support.
This openness invited public backing and attracted vital resources—the strike fund was sustained by big gifts, like $25,000 from AFSCME’s Saunders, and small donations online. At the doors, some people intending to visit the museum would instead turn back and donate. This support allowed the union to increase strike pay from $80 to $100 a day and wait it out, calling the museum’s bluff.
After 18 days on strike and two canceled bargaining sessions, the union decided to escalate. The museum was set to host a high-profile VIP opening for the Matisse exhibition on October 15. Two days before, the union announced a simultaneous public rally with the slogan: “No contract, no Matisse!” The next day the museum agreed to the union’s full proposal.
The PMA workers re-entered the workplace with a new sense of shared purpose and strong friendships built on the picket line. “The union feels like a core to all of us,” says Bloom. A new social committee is meant to keep these bonds strong.
The union also formed an archive committee, tasked with collecting information about the campaign and strike. Members hope this material can assist workers elsewhere. Havlish said he and others received frequent texts from friends in other workplaces during the strike: “We’re watching you.”
Liam Kelly is a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and the Caucus of Working Educators.
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