In August 2021, I shared a blog post which looked at the increase in museum workers striking and unionizing across the United States. Over a year later, another major museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), is in the news as their workers have gone on strike. After two years of failed union negotiations, workers at the PMA went on strike on September 26th “indefinitely.”
In August 2020, the museum’s employees joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 47 after an 89% majority vote. This made the PMA Union the first wall-to-wall union at a major American museum and one of the country’s largest unionized museum workforces. Since then, contract negotiations between the Union and museum leadership has been ongoing and difficult. The workers, roughly 180 employees, have been without a contract since the union was created. In August 2022, the union filed eight Unfair Labor Practice charges against the museum and accused the museum of union busting. After the charges were presented, the Union voted with a 99% margin to strike.
After an initial warning strike on September 16th, union and museum leadership were able to come to an agreement on non-economic issues, such as job protection for temporary workers and volunteers, but have been unable to agree on pay and benefits with healthcare as the largest hurdle. Union President Adam Rizzo stated that the current healthcare plans are “wildly unaffordable.” In the wake of two years of a pandemic, access to affordable and reliable healthcare has only become more important. Additionally, the union is fighting for fair wages, noting many of their colleagues have left the PMA for other museums that offer higher wages.
The strike comes at an awkward time – new PMA director, Sasha Suda, began her first day at the museum on Monday, September 26th. Suda was appointed as the new director of the museum after former director Timothy Rub stepped down in July 2021 amid criticism as a result of a New York Times report in 2020 that then-assistant director Joshua Helmer had been accused of inappropriate behavior towards female staff starting in 2016. Rizzo said the issues with the former assistant director was a major factor in their decision to unionize and hopes Suda’s appointment will bring about change.
The museum has offered wage increases totally 8.5% over the next ten months and 11% by July 2024 with four weeks paid parental leave in addition to the current paid time off and a more flexible remote work schedule. The union said PMA staff salaries are only 30-60% of the industry standard, depending on the position, while senior management earn well above industry standard and the offers made hardly make up for inflation and the fact the staff hasn’t received raises in three years.
The museum remains open despite as it’s workers, including curators, conservators, and workers from across most departments, continuing to protest outside the main building, chanting “No contract, no peace! No contract, no Matisse!” less than a month before a major Matisse exhibition is scheduled to open.
“I don’t know who is going to hang the art on the walls…Everyone who installs the paintings – they’re out here today on the lines,” said Rizzo.