Last Friday, October 14, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) Union achieved a historic victory: After 19 days on strike, museum management compromised on all five of its demands, and two days later, its workers voted to ratify their first contract.

Last Monday, those workers returned to work with a higher minimum wage, across-the-board raises, longevity bonuses, paid family leave, and lower-cost healthcare. After three weeks on the picket line, they also returned to work with a newfound sense of community.

“I’ve never said hello to so many people just walking to my office,” said PMA Union President Adam Rizzo. “And I know their names and know their lives.”

Other workers reiterated the sentiment. “Meeting with people who you wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise was one of the greatest aspects of the past month,” said museum photographer Joseph Hu. Chris Havlish, who works in the installations department and has been at the museum for 16 years, called the strike “an amazing, transformative experience.”

However, perspectives on returning to work were less wholly positive.

“It has been a real emotional rollercoaster,” Havlish said. “Coming back in with that energy — positive energy — and feeling this solidarity with so many of my coworkers, and then immediately feeling deflating by this toxicity that has always been there.”

When Havlish returned to work, he found his team’s shop in disarray. With its art handlers on the picket line, PMA had hired outside contractors to install its current Matisse in the 1930s exhibition.

“We immediately had to clean up after these folks,” said Havlish. “The tools they had been using to put up the show had just been dumped back into our shop. It was a real heavy moment.”

Havlish added that he has not visited the Matisse show: “It’s almost repelling at this point. No one wants to even think about it.”

Hu described the museum’s general atmosphere as “a little tense.” “We’re all walking on eggshells a little bit,” he said.

On the workers’ first day back, the museum hosted an ice cream social. One worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said it was out of touch.

“It was kind of everyone pretending that nothing happened, there were no words said,” the worker told Hyperallergic, adding that the museum’s chief operating officer Bill Petersen attended the event.

“It’s like, ‘How can you show your face here?'” the worker said, adding that their supervisor accelerated deadlines to make up for time lost to the strike while criticizing the nature of a unionized workplace. (A spokesperson for the museum declined to comment on these allegations).

“I’m not going to work extra hours unpaid to make up for their lack of willingness to negotiate earlier,” said the worker.

Nicole Cook, an academic partnerships program manager at the PMA, said the swift return to a “fast-paced ‘business as usual’ atmosphere” has allowed the museum to avoid acknowledging that the striking workers “made things better for both union staff and managers.”

While some union members described cold and awkward interactions with management, others had more positive anecdotes in which middle managers were excited at their colleagues’ return. Rizzo said he’s experienced gratitude from non-union staff (the newly won benefits, like parental leave, will be extended to those employees, too) and that some museum visitors have issued their congratulations.

Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the morning of their first day back at work

On Thursday, the museum held its first all-staff meeting since November 2021. Director and CEO Sasha Suda, who assumed her position on the same day the workers went on strike, spoke at the event. Throughout the strike, picketing workers had criticized her silence and work with “scabs.”

After the meeting, Rizzo said he was “really impressed with what she had to say” and feeling “cautiously optimistic.”

Hu echoed Rizzo’s remarks: “I think we can come away from the meeting hopeful, give her the benefit of the doubt, and judge her for her actions in the near future.”

Jun Nakamura, a curatorial fellow in the prints department, said that after three weeks together on the picket line, he felt a sense of loss now that regular, siloed work life has pushed him apart from his fellow union members. He said he was happy to be back at work, “but with a mixture of emotions.”

“We want to make sure people continue to feel that support and the joy of being together,” Rizzo said. The union’s constitution mandates a monthly meeting, but Rizzo said they’ve been trying to do other things together, too, like getting drinks after work.

Hu said that the strike — and its length — created an especially tight-knit community of workers from across the museum.

“Management inadvertently created a sense of comradery and really strong union,” the worker said. “And that’s something they’ll have to face in the future.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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