The PMA Union authorizes a strike, after two years of stalled negotiations. (photograph by Tim Tiebout, courtesy PMA Union)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) Union voted last night, August 30, in favor of a strike authorization by a 99% margin during the most well-attended meeting in its history. The vote came just days after the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the museum. The strike authorization raises the stakes of ongoing negotiations between the union and management which have been underway since October 2020.

The PMA Union is currently in the economic stage of negotiations, with its main demands being that management raise pay, lower the costs of healthcare, and establish paid parental leave. In July, a handout that the PMA Union distributed alleged that despite being among the most well-endowed art museums in the country, PMA pays 34% less than other mid-Atlantic museums, 33% less than others with similar budgets, and 20% less than museums nationally. According to the union, management’s offer was a meager guarantee of 2 to 3% annual raises, two-week paid parental leave, and a health plan that it viewed as ungenerous, with high deductibles and low employer contributions.

“We’re lagging behind peer institutions in significant numbers, in terms of compensation to staff in our unit,” Amanda Bock, a PMA exhibition organizer and a lead shop steward for the PMA Union, told Hyperallergic. “We’re still very far apart in terms of what we think our employees deserve,” she said, referring to the divide that lies between the union and museum leadership.

An additional complaint the union has made relates to the museum’s replacement of union jobs with temporary, subcontracted employment.

A PMA spokesperson expressed dismay at the union’s recent actions, including both their authorization of a strike and their filing of an unfair labor practice complaint. “We value our staff and have always respected their right to organize and participate in the union,” the spokesperson told Hyperallergic in an email. “Accordingly, the museum has been bargaining in good faith with the union, and we remain committed to working toward a fair and appropriate collective bargaining agreement.”

The spokesperson said the museum disagrees with the union’s claims in the unfair labor practice filing, adding: “To date, we have reached tentative agreements with the union on more than 25 substantive issues. We are scheduled to meet again with the union next week and hope to continue making progress in the negotiations.”

In August 2020, the PMA unionized with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees District Council 47 union (AFSCME DC 47), becoming the first wall-to-wall union at a major American museum. Some 89% of over 300 staff members voted in favor of unionization over a year of organizing, a response to both inequitable salaries and a mishandled sexual harassment case.

The PMA Union hosted three rallies between April and July this year to draw attention to stalled negotiations with museum leadership. About 250 people participated in the April rally, attended by staff, union representatives, artists, and politicians and over 2,000 protested in support of the union in July.

Adam Rizzo, a museum educator at the PMA and the union’s president, said that engagement among union members has been high since they’ve been holding open bargaining sessions. “Our membership sees clearly the kinds of behaviors that we’ve outlined in our unfair labor practice charge, and understands that a strike authorization was a really important step in redressing the wrongs that we believe the museum is committing in negotiations,” he told Hyperallergic in an interview. Rizzo added that he was “really pleasantly surprised” by the turnout, with more than 100 members present.

“We hope that management will work to avoid a strike,” Bock said. “They can do that by working out the unfair labor practice charge with us — remedying that and bringing serious offers to the bargaining table and negotiating in good faith with us.”

“I love my job,” Bock added. “I would really just like to go to work and do my job.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.