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Schuylkill Center workers prepare to negotiate first contract after forming union

Photo credit: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images
Schuylkill Center workers prepare to negotiate first contract after forming union
By Andrew Fernandez ·
Tags: Momentum Wages

Workers at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia are preparing to negotiate their first contract after they formed a union through AFSCME District Council 47.

The 38 workers, who provide educational programs, rehabilitate wildlife and protect the city’s only private nature preserve, voted 93% in favor of their union on Feb. 22, joining other cultural worker unions in the area, including Philadelphia Museum of Art Union, Penn Museum Workers United, and Please Touch Museum United.

Workers say they started the union campaign due to some issues common to other cultural institutions, such as low pay and poor benefits coupled with an expectation that employees should feel grateful for their employment.  

Nick Tonetti, an environmental educator at the Schuylkill Center, said workers challenged the idea that if they love what they do, they cannot expect to be paid well.

“The biggest thing for people [was] wages, but I think related to that is just a feeling of security and sustainability,” Tonnetti said. “Everyone really loves the work they do, and I think everyone just wants to feel like this is something they could do for a long time. People just want to feel the security that I can do what I love while still getting what I need to survive.”

On top of that, management and employees rarely discussed workplace issues. Workers say their concerns about proper staffing were brushed aside and when certain employees pushed back, some were punished with undesirable work and even fired.

Workers pointed to one example when an educator who worked at the Schuylkill Center for nearly two decades was unceremoniously fired.

“She was not afraid to talk to parents about issues at the center, which made her a target of executive management,” said Tonnetti. “But she wasn’t speaking up because she disliked her work, she was vocal because she really cared and wanted to make it better for parents, kids, workers and everyone.”

Tonnetti said management treated her “like she was a criminal.”

“She was given five minutes to pack everything and get out of the center. They took away this person that was like such a huge part of the Schuylkill Center and greater community, and disrespected her on the way out, too,” he said. “Our unit was like ‘I can't believe they did this. This is exactly why we need a union.’ Once I saw that, I had this feeling that we're gonna win this.”

Tonnetti was right — workers voted in a landslide in favor of their union.

But Sky Templeton, another worker at the Schuylkill Center, knows this fight is far from over.

“For me, it's exciting in the sense of not when the race is over, but when the race has begun,” Templeton said. “I knew we could do it despite the fact that management said, ‘No, you can't, no, you can't’. It’s validating to prove them wrong.”

Templeton remarked that the victory shows that every worker should be part of a union.

“No small is too small. You matter. Even if you’re part time or just doing it because you care.  Well, that's enough to be defended in the workplace, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise,” Templeton said.

Templeton, Tonnetti, and the rest of Schuylkill Center staff are now a part of AFSCME Cultural Workers United, a national movement of cultural workers at libraries, museums and zoos joining together to negotiate for better pay and working conditions, demand equity, and fight for transparency in our workplaces.

AFSCME represents more cultural workers than any other union, including 10,000 museum workers at 91 cultural institutions in the public and private sectors, and more than 25,000 library workers at 275 public and private libraries. 

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