More than 2,000 AFSCME union members rallied along with Philadelphia Museum of Art workers. (all photos courtesy AFSCME)

On Wednesday, July 13, more than 2,000 trade unionists and art workers rallied on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) in support of the PMA Union’s campaign for a fair contract. Now 22 months into stalled negotiations, the union’s third rally since April brought together national and local labor leaders to demand management meets at the bargaining table in good faith.

Organized under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 397, PMA workers formed the first wall-to-wall museum union in August 2020 with an 89% supermajority. Since then, the union alleges that management has dragged its feet in establishing a fair contract, the demands of which include affordable benefits, safe working conditions, and protection from harassment. In addition to the rallies, the PMA Union recently organized a strike fund to compensate members who walk off the job, to which AFSCME recently pledged $25,000

The union alleges that management has dragged its feet in establishing a fair contract.

While other demonstrations saw turnout from local political organizations and artists, this rally coincided with the AFSCME’s 45th International Convention at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Center City. Members from across the United States turned out to declare their solidarity with museum workers, decked out in green shirts bearing Robert Indiana’s iconic “LOVE” sculpture.

Supporters wore shirts depicting Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” sculpture.

Following a series of speeches from AFSCME and AFL-CIO leaders, PMA Union President Adam Rizzo lamented the museum’s 127 pandemic layoffs despite receiving nearly $11 million in federal pandemic relief assistance.

“Let me say this clearly: It’s shameful that a museum with a $60 million annual budget has staff who are forced to work multiple jobs just to get by,” Rizzo said in a statement. Indeed, the institution recently underwent a $233 million renovation, completed in May, “while the employees who work in these spaces haven’t received a raise in years,” Rizzo added. Even before these construction plans, however, higher wages were rarely considered a possibility.

“I have not had a meaningful raise in a very long time, not since the Bush administration,” said Sarah Roche, a label technician at the museum since 1997. “Low and stagnant pay is not unique to me, it is systemic. I have been sad to see many brilliant, dedicated colleagues leave the museum due to low pay, or because they had a baby. Now formerly stable departments have high staff turnover and unfilled positions, creating stress and intensifying the pace of work.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a PMA spokesperson said the museum “respects the right of the union to make their voices heard, and is dedicated to making further progress together in the negotiations.”

“The museum and the union have reached agreement on over two dozen proposals covering a number of issues, ranging from the establishment of a labor-management committee to anti-harassment,” the spokesperson added. “Negotiations over a first contract can often take two or more years. The museum continues to meet regularly with the union and is committed to reaching a fair and appropriate contract.”

The museum currently holds nearly $1 billion in assets, according to AFSCME, and enough funds to hire a law firm known for “union avoidance.” As such, PMA workers and their union family vow to continue the public demonstrations until management is held accountable. 

“Until we get a fair contract, we will be back again and again and again,” declared AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “We are not afraid, we will not back down, and we will not shut up until the members of the PMA Union are victorious in this fight.”

Editor’s note 7/15/22 11am EDT: This article has been updated with comment from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.