On the gusty Friday evening of April 1, workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) gathered at the building’s West Entrance with representatives from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Union to speak out about the museum’s delay in meeting their demands for a safe and sustainable work environment. In August of 2020, workers at the PMA made history as the first wall-to-wall union at a major American museum, voting to unionize with an 89% supermajority. To this day, the PMA administration still hasn’t offered the PMA Union a contract as workers continue to demand fair wages, adequate protection from harassment, and affordable healthcare benefits.
A group of about 250 PMA employees, AFSCME members, and Philadelphia neighbors listened and clapped along with speeches from museum staff, union representatives, Philadelphia muralist Symone Salib, and politicians including Pennsylvania State Senator Nikhil Saval. AFSCME members led rounds of hearty chanting, such as “What do we want? A contract! When do we want it? Now!” and “Get up! Get down! Philly is a union town!” Participants waved signs featuring slogans like, “FAIR CONTRACT NOW,” “Put your Monet where your mouth is,” and “The Union Makes Us Strong” while marching around the museum building and up its grand steps, where the energized chanting continued.
Union formation at the PMA began brewing in 2019 after workers found pay discrepancies between employees performing the same jobs. In January of 2020, hundreds of PMA workers signed a petition calling for changes to the museum’s anti-harassment policy, in response to several allegations of sexual misconduct against the museum’s former Assistant Director of Interpretation Joshua Helmer. This was closely followed by a report that exposed the extent of verbal and physical assault by the museum’s former director of retail, James A. Cincotta, who had remained employed for several years after these incidents allegedly occurred. PMA workers scheduled their union election in June of 2020, days after the museum eliminated over 20% of its staff through a combination of furloughs and voluntary separations, which was seen as controversial in light of their receiving a large Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan. A spokesperson from the museum told Hyperallergic that they had received the PPP loan “in the amount of $5,099,447” and that “100% was used to fund salaries and benefits.”
PMA leadership apologized for mishandling complaints of sexual misconduct, and in January 2020, the institution announced the creation of an anonymous hotline for reporting incidents and trainings covering “harassment, discrimination, and anti-bias training,” according to the spokesperson. In a speech at Friday’s rally, museum educator and PMA Union President Adam Rizzo said that “management would like us to forget about the major harassment scandals that many of us have lived through, where we reported abusive managers but to no avail. At the bargaining table, we are demanding that management agree to actually enforce their own anti-harassment policy — something they simply refuse to do.”
A spokesperson from the PMA told Hyperallergic that unionized staff “has a right to make their voices heard and the museum respects that right.”
“We are committed to reaching a collective bargaining agreement with the union, one that results in a contract that is fair to our staff and ensures the health and sustainability of the museum into the future,” the spokesperson added.
In a speech at the rally, Rizzo said that when workers initially uncovered pay discrepancies, they saw how “understaffed, overworked, and underpaid” they were. Rizzo added that it is “shameful” that a museum with a large budget has “staff that works multiple jobs to get by.” A PMA spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the operating budget in 2020 was $57 million and $49 million in 2021.
While new construction in the museum has cost over $230 million, many employees haven’t received raises in years. Employees noted that the prestige of being a part of a lauded institution is often used as an excuse to pay workers less. Rizzo says that they are not only asking for fair pay but transparency on how salary raises are determined. “We believe that will create more equity and diversity and bring more people into the field, if people can come in knowing that they will get a raise every year,” he told Hyperallergic. Rizzo also said that when salary transparency spreadsheets, circulated by museum workers, came out in 2019, PMA workers found “that our wages were wildly depressed” compared to similar institutions.
A museum development worker, Su Spina, said in her speech, “Our work makes everything that happens at the museum possible. We deserve wages and benefits that make it possible for an average Philadelphian to work here.”
Spina spoke about the precarity of working without affordable health benefits, especially for people with pre-existing conditions. She went on to describe how workers have to choose between a cheaper healthcare option with an extremely high deductible and a plan that “costs four times as much per pay period. If you’re like me and you have pre-existing health conditions or require surgery, those options really leave you with no choice at all.”
“I feel like I have been punished for being sick,” said Spina. Her words were met by boos of anger and yells of support from the crowd. In conversations following the speeches, workers from the museum’s Visitor Services department also expressed that they are of the most vulnerable groups. They are paid at the lower end of the scale while experiencing the most exposure to the public, with variable safety precautions since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
The union says it sent its proposals to leadership between late January and late February, but has not yet received a response from the institution. Cathy Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47, said in her speech that “the lack of movement and respect at the bargaining table is union-busting, pure and simple.” She admonished the museum for investing in anti-union tactics rather than in their employees. In June of 2020, the museum hired Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a law firm infamous for union-busting services and known for assisting Ronald Reagan in breaking the PATCO air traffic controllers union in 1981.
While negotiations with the PMA remain stagnant, the formation of the first “wall-to-wall” museum union has inspired workers to organize at museums like the Milwaukee Museum of Art, MFA Boston, and the Whitney Museum.
Rizzo has noticed that across many organizing efforts that there’s often a narrative being pushed of “disgruntled employees that are angry, that they have grievances [and that’s why] they are organizing.”
“I find that dismissive and hurtful,” he said. “We do this work because we love the institutions and the work that we do — for the museum, for our community, and for our city.”
Editor’s note 4/7/22 2pm EST: This article has been updated to include comments from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.