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Workers at Philadelphia Museum of Art ramp up pressure for fair contract

Photo Credit: Kat Cancio.
Workers at Philadelphia Museum of Art ramp up pressure for fair contract
By Kathleen Cancio ·

Nearly two years ago, workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) made history by voting 89% in favor of forming the country’s first wall-to-wall museum union. A relatively new phenomenon in the cultural sector, a wall-to-wall union allows for all eligible workers, regardless of department, to unite as a single bargaining unit.

Eager to secure their first contract, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Union began contract negotiations shortly after winning their union election in August 2020. However, after 1½ years of bargaining, the workers say that PMA management refuses to compromise on measures that would provide staff with greater job security, pay and safety from harassment.

During a recent rally to demand PMA stop stalling contract negotiations and agree to a fair contract, Adam Rizzo, a museum educator and president of PMA Union Local 397 (AFSCME District Council 47), stressed the importance of improving salary equity for the overworked and underpaid employees.

“It is shameful that a museum with a $60 million dollar annual budget has staff who are forced to work multiple jobs just to get by,” said Rizzo. “Meanwhile, the institution prioritizes spending $233 million on new spaces, while the employees who work in those spaces haven’t received a raise in years.”

Regarding the issue of safety, Rizzo said PMA management refuses to commit to enforcing its own anti-harassment policy at the bargaining table.

“Management would like us to forget about the major harassment scandals that many of us have lived through,” Rizzo explained, referring to the PMA's mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against former employee, Joshua Helmer.

Lav Jones, a member of PMA’s visitor services team, also addressed the crowd of approximately 250 PMA employees, elected officials and union supporters during the April 1 rally. Jones spoke about the museum's high turnover, citing management’s disappointing response to COVID-19 and a lack of career opportunities for visitor services assistants (VSAs).

Jones, who worked at the museum less than a year, recalled that almost all of their entire team has turned over since negotiations began, leaving Jones as the second-most senior person in Visitor Services.

“To put it in perspective, we have been in negotiations nearly twice as long as I have worked at the museum,” Jones said.

Despite frustrations around collective bargaining, Jones said there is one thing that has changed for the better.

“The museum very quietly raised the minimum rate of pay for VSAs to $15 an hour – but only after our union exposed how one fifth of our bargaining unit was making less than that,” Jones said.

The rally for a fair contract also drew in local politicians who joined in criticizing the museum’s refusal to bargain in good faith. Pennsylvania state Sen. Nikil Saval, Sen. Sharif Street and state Rep. Madeleine Dean were among those in attendance.

In a rousing speech, Saval declared his support for the PMA Union and urged the museum to agree to a fair contract, saying “enough is enough.” Street, whose jurisdiction includes the PMA, pledged to hold the museum accountable by withholding any future financial assistance until workers received a fair contract.

Saval’s remarks were met with cheers and applause from rallygoers, who embarked on a march around the PMA after the rally. Signs reading “Protect art workers, not just art” and “Unionize every museum” attracted honks from passing cars while chants of “Fair contract now” could be heard throughout the vicinity of the museum.

“We won our union by sticking together,” said Rizzo. “And we’ll win a strong contract the same way.”

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