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The Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (courtesy the Penn Museum)

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Amid a union election at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, workers are charging the museum’s leadership with “obstructing the free and fair election process through anti-union activity.” The tally of the mail ballots, sent to workers by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) earlier this week, is expected on August 10.

The workers are voting for a wall-to-wall union representing staff from all of the museum’s departments. It would include 75 workers ranging from font-of-line staff to curators and museum educators. If they win, the workers will join AFSCME District Council 47 and Cultural Workers Local 397, a union recently formed by workers from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). The workers are demanding more involvement in the museum’s decisions, improved work conditions like fair wages and job protections, and a better dialogue with the community.

This latest conflict follows a string of controversies involving the museum’s possession of human remains, including the skulls of enslaved people, in its infamous Morton Collection. Most recently, the museum also faced backlash for holding the remains of a victim of the 1985 MOVE Bombing for decades. The remains of the victim, who is believed to be 14-year-old Tree Africa, were returned to her family on July 2, the museum told Hyperallergic.

Earlier this month, workers at the museum released a letter of support, signed by hundreds of museum professionals, calling on the museum to “maintain neutrality throughout the election process and to refrain from all anti-union activity.”

In a comment to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for Penn Museum wrote: “We fully support our employees’ right to make a free and informed decision, and we believe they are entitled to receive honest, factual information about the voting process and collective bargaining.”

But the workers say that the museum is actively discouraging their colleagues from unionizing by “spreading misleading information about the outcomes of unionizing” via all-staff emails, meetings, and printed fact sheets. A packet that was mailed to workers and reviewed by Hyperallergic includes the warning: “By unionizing, individual employees will have less voice in decisions that will affect them individually, not more as unions sometimes promise.”

Such fact sheets are common practice among museums and other organizations that show reluctance to union drives. Adding to the pressure, Penn Museum also sent workers a plethora of different materials with anti-union talking points, including a video message from its new director, Chris Woods, pleading with his workers to vote NO in the election.

“I’m deeply concerned that giving your voice to a union will not contribute to healthy, productive relationships among our team,” Woods says in the video. “To the contrary, a third party would make it more difficult for us to work directly together to achieve the goals you’ve shared with me over the past few months.”

Woods, who became the museum’s first Black director in April, was immediately plunged into the controversies around the museum’s possession of human remains while also overseeing a $100 million renovation project. Now, he’s facing backlash from his own staff.

Rebeccah Ulm, a museum educator and member of the union’s organizing committee, told Hyperallergic that workers had initially hoped that Woods, who started his tenure with a good rapport with staff, would voluntarily recognize their union.

“It’s been disappointing and disheartening,” Ulm said in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “We hoped for [Woods’] support, but instead we got negative messaging and boilerplate anti-union propaganda calling a union a ‘third-party’ while, in fact, a union would be made of us.”

“The museum is using a lot of resources to produce documents and videos that are meant to scare people and sow seeds of mistrust and confusion,” Ulm continued. “It makes me question: Where is this money coming from?”

The workers have been sharing snippets of the museum’s anti-union messaging on their Instagram account with the label “BUSTED,” indicating union-busting tactics. One of the documents they received urged them to “give Chris Woods a chance.”

Despite these obstacles, Ulm said she’s hopeful for a victory based on the overwhelming majority of workers who had signed union authorization cards. “I believe in my colleagues,” she said. “I believe in the strength of our community and the care we have for each other.” 

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an...

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