AnalysisMilitant Journalism

Philadelphia museum workers strike, win first contract

Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art concluded a successful 17-day strike on Oct. 14, one day before the opening gala for a special exhibition of the works of Henri Matisse. They won a tentative agreement that included all of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Union’s demands. After two years of stalled negotiations and a hard-fought struggle, PMAU won its first contract with workers voting 99% to ratify it three days later.

PMAU’s victories include a minimum wage increase from $15 an hour to $16.75, larger and more frequent raises, more affordable health care, longevity raises for long-term employees, paid parental leave going from zero to four months, and limits on temporary and subcontracted labor.

PMA workers have proved that with dedication and creativity worker organizing applies to museum workers just as workers in any other sector. Winning a first contract can be one of the toughest fights since oftentimes management will try to wait out the workers, not moving on issues and hoping that the union gives up. However, after three weeks the museum workers’ persistence led to a victory that is an inspiration for all workers fighting for dignity and respect on the job.

A portrait of PMAU

In 2019, an artist and curator at the PMA named Michelle Fisher came up with a creative tactic for raising the consciousness of museum workers. She made the ‘Art/Museum Transparency’ spreadsheet, a shared online document in which workers from various museums entered data about their salary and benefits. This allowed workers to compare their pay with that of their coworkers. A well-known aspect of capitalist work culture is the taboo against discussing pay. Fisher bravely broke this taboo — one which keeps workers in the dark and makes them easier to exploit.

According to Adam Rizzo, a founder and now president of the museum’s union, this document helped spark the organizing efforts at the PMA. Rizzo learned that a more senior co-worker of his in the same department was getting paid $7,000 a year less for a comparable job. “My only explanation is that I’m a man and she’s a woman,” he said. Without a union, workers might take an individualistic view of this situation and treat each other as the problem. But Rizzo and his coworker discovered the only real solution to the problem — to organize together for a better and more fair workplace.

Early in 2020, workers at the PMA began having small meetings in their homes to discuss their conditions and explore the possibility of forming a union. 

Their first obstacle was the estrangement of workers from each other. “Like a lot of institutions like this,” Rizzo said, “there’s a lot of hierarchy and a lot of siloing. So I think the biggest challenge at first was just getting to know folks in other departments who you don’t normally talk to.” This phase of organizing is often long and difficult. But it’s not without powerful and unique moments as you get to know your coworkers. Rizzo shared, “[It]’s been probably the most rewarding part of this process, really getting to know folks.”

After months of organizing conversations with co-workers, the PMAU campaign was ready to go public. In response, the museum’s management hired the union-busting law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which also served as Donald Trump’s tax counsel from 2005 to 2021. Despite the union-busting attempts, PMAU persisted and joined AFSCME District Council 47 in July 2020, becoming the country’s first wall-to-wall museum union, AFSCME Local 397.

Line work: PMAU goes on strike

For two long years, PMAU tried to negotiate a fair contract with the museum management, which refused to budge in an attempt to wait out the workers and let demoralization do its work.

But on August 30, 99% of PMAU members voted to go on strike. PMAU member, Elizabeth, who works as a donor communications manager, said in a PMAU post, “I’ve watched dozens of colleagues in my department work hard to raise millions of dollars for the museum, only to be forced to quit because they literally could not afford to work here. The status quo is morally unacceptable and practically unsustainable. If our executives and Board don’t see that by now, I’m ready to strike to bring them to their senses.”

PMAU members picketing. Credit: Tim Tiebout, a PMAU member. Used with permission.

The strike began on Sept. 16 during a week of heavy rain, as the remnants of Hurricane Fiona traveled up the Mid-Atlantic coast. But morale remained high on the picket line. The weather eventually cleared up, and workers from different departments marched, sang and chanted alongside union members from other unions, socialist organizers and community members. “No justice, no peace! No contract, no Matisse!” was a favorite chant, referencing the upcoming special exhibition.

As guests approached the museum, organizers out front would talk to them about what was happening, and encourage them to hold off on visiting the PMA until the workers got a contract. “We were turning away about 50% of people,” said Tim Tiebout, a museum photographer and PMAU member.

Inside the building, things were chaotic. In an interview with Liberation News, Tiebout said, “I mean, it’s very bad. They’re having curators run visitor services desks. They might have thought that was fun for a day or two, but with the weather this weekend, they had wet, angry visitors coming in, long lines from them just not knowing how to use the systems …” In short, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different from the powerful worker demonstration taking place outside on the picket line.

Solidarity grows in struggle

This experience was transformative for many of the striking workers. Shen Shellenberger, who has worked at the museum for over 20 years, says she had never had many grievances with the museum until recently. But she says things changed beginning with Timothy Rub’s tenure as museum director and CEO in 2009. “He was just — not personality-wise so much, but just a little more bottom-line oriented, a little less community oriented … [D]uring these negotiations the museum [management] is talking about the community, but they’re not talking about their own community! They’re acting like we don’t matter, and it’s really disturbing. And I’ve never felt this way before!”

Shellenberger is one of many workers who wouldn’t have imagined going on strike just a few years ago, but through her union’s contract struggle, and with the silence from management including from the new director Sasha Suda, she saw the necessity. 

“They are literally sneaking [Suda] in and out of the museum for meetings. And she missed a great opportunity to just tell the staff that she understands, that she’s eager to work with them, anything … It’s disrespectful.” Suda was touted as friendly to unions, having come from a unionized museum in Canada, but failed to show any support for PMAU.

Once the strike began, Shellenberger said to Liberation News that she gained a new feeling of solidarity and respect for her fellow union members. “It’s really solidified this group of workers,” she said. “The way things are in the world now, you can work with someone for 10 years and never see their face. ‘Oh, I think we’ve emailed!’ you know. And so to be able to spend time with these people, talking with them and picketing, and talking to visitors — the interactions have been wonderful.”

Museum workers expand the horizon

From salary increases to parental leave, from better health care costs to language protecting against temp and subcontracted jobs — which is an important protection due to contracting out being a common boss’s tactic to weaken the union and avoid the new working conditions won by PMAU — the Philadelphia Museum workers came out of their struggle victorious.

Tim Tiebout attests that “people in general have a celebratory mood, and our changes to pay and benefits will be extended to managers and other non-union-eligible staff, so they’re appreciative of our sacrifice.”

A former PMA worker who helped organize the initial union drive, but now works at a different non-unionized art institution, echoes this mood: “The union winning the contract is huge. We accomplished something they never believed we could, and made them realize it’s where valuable workers make their living and not just a playground for the board,” referring to the oligarchs on the Board of Trustees.

The former PMA employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation at their new job, added, “For me and a lot of other people, it’s an accomplishment that’s come too late, and the museum has bled a lot of talent … It’s bittersweet for me because the museum will be a much more promising place to work than when I was there.” They expressed hope that the wave of unionization will spread. “The PMA sets standards for cultural institutions in the city and hopefully others will learn from their mistakes and acknowledge the value of their staff. I also hope there are pathways for other smaller institutions to join, and that we can have conversations about unions without the threat of being fired.” 

As new life is being breathed into the labor movement, cultural workers are beginning to see themselves as part of the working class. Until cultural institutions are owned by the people, and not the capitalists, unions like the PMAU have the potential to play a key role in our movement for a new socialist society.

PMAU members with picket signs outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Credit: Tim Tiebout, a PMAU member. Used with permission.

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