The Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by via Shinya Suzuki via Flickr)

Following a month of negotiations, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) Union has reached an agreement with the institution’s leadership, and a mail-in union election has been scheduled for July. The news comes only days after PMA’s announcement that it would cut more than 100 employees, or over 20% of its workforce, via a combination of furloughs and voluntary separation agreements.

Many of the furloughs consist of visitor services representatives, front of house staff, and other workers. In a significant accomplishment in the wake of these staff reductions, furloughed workers will still be able to vote in the union election along with their non-furloughed colleagues. Furloughed employees’ votes will also count even if they are laid off mid-election, a move that may become necessary as the museum grapples with a $6.5 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Nicole Cook, Program Manager for Graduate Academic Partnerships at PMA and member of the union organizing committee, said getting the election scheduled is an important victory.

“We believe that the outpouring of public support, from museum supporters and visitors to Philadelphia City Council Members, helped us reach this agreement and we are grateful to each and every person and organization expressing solidarity,” said Cook. “As we move forward with our election, we’ll be talking to our coworkers and finding ways to support our furloughed colleagues. We are the PMA and we’re in this together.”

Cook says an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was filed on May 22. The group asked museum leadership to voluntarily recognize the union that same day, but PMA declined. The museum has sought the guidance of its long-term counsel, Philadelphia-based corporate law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a reputed “union avoidance” firm.

Initially, Cook says, the museum asked for two bargaining units, divided between so-called “core” and “non-core” departments — curatorial, conservation, and education staff considered in the former category, while departments such as visitor services, retail, and membership would fall in the latter. Members of the union and others have called out the museum for making this distinction, arguing that such hierarchical definitions ignore the contributions of workers at all levels who keep the institution functioning.

“We’ve always been committed to a wall-to-wall union,” Cook said. “We do not see this division of core versus non-core staff. We see the way we work together every day on all sorts of projects. The museum ultimately backed off from that request, so we will be advocating for all eligible employees.”

Any employee working at least four hours a week at the museum, based on their schedule before the pandemic-related museum shutdown on March 13, will be eligible for the union. Before the recently implemented staff reduction, the museum’s workforce consisted of around 500 employees, and Cook says the union will include hundreds of eligible workers. They are strongly advocating for both part-time employees and contracted workers, who have been particularly vulnerable in the economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19, to be represented. Some subcontracted workers, such as the museum’s security guards, are already represented by separate unions.

When asked why the museum did not voluntarily recognize the union, a museum spokesperson cited an email sent by PMA CEO Timothy Rub to staff last week in which he says that “all eligible employees should have the opportunity to decide through a vote if they want union representation.”

Cook, who has worked at the PMA for a little under three years, first got involved in conversations for better working conditions about a year ago. She says she and other workers were inspired by the collective salary spreadsheet started by Art Museum + Transparency, which was co-founded by Michelle Millar Fisher, formerly an assistant curator at the PMA.

“It kicked off a lot of really organic conversations with colleagues at the museum around issues of pay, compensation, and benefits, but also just the lack of transparency that we saw within our own institution,” said Cook.

Earlier this year, PMA was at the center of two back-t0-back controversies related to workplace harassment. In January, the museum publicly apologized for mishandling allegations of sexual misconduct against departed employee Joshua R. Helmer; less than a month later, an exposé in the Philadelphia Inquirer detailing shocking accusations of physical and verbal abuse against the museum’s previous director of retail, James A. Cincotta.

“We were humbled by the people that did decide to come forward about their experiences,” said Cook. “The press around that allowed us to pick up momentum and find out who was interested in being involved, and how a union could provide the kind of safety and transparency that would lead to a more empowered workforce in general.”

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, union members said they were still reeling from the news of vast furloughs across the museum.

“Given that we have been ready to vote since we filed in May, we wish our campaign were already resolved, either through voluntary recognition or a more speedily agreed-upon election,” the statement reads. “However, today’s agreement is a big win for all eligible staff, and we are also heartened that furloughed workers will have a say in the future of the museum.”

A spokesperson for PMA told Hyperallergic that this is the first time the museum has had to cut staff since it closed to the public in March, and furloughed workers will retain health benefits. The institution does not expect to open again until late summer, with more specific dates still to be defined.

“I wish that the steps we took in early April to retain all of our staff had been sufficient to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the museum,” said Rub in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. He continued:

Regrettably, we find ourselves facing a crisis that is much more severe in impact and duration than we had initially imagined. Although the reduction in force we have announced today is smaller in percentage terms than those implemented by many other cultural institutions, the fact is that taking such a step is heartbreaking. We’ve had to make some very tough choices and to do so in a way that we feel is best for this institution and its ability to continue serving the public in the long term.

The union election is slated to take place by mail, with ballots going out on July 9, due on July 30, and counted August 6.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...