Philadelphia Museum of Art staff strike shows woes of ‘prestige’ workplaces

(Philadelphia) — Workers are unionizing in areas where they haven’t had much of a presence, including world-class cultural institutions. Staff at about two dozen museums in the United States have joined unions since 2019, according to an NPR analysis of news reports and announcements.

A strike continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, known for its vast collection and cameo appearance in the film Rockyis emblematic of the tension driving this movement.

A common thread, union organizers say is the controversy that comes from dealing with priceless works of art or history while struggling to pay the bills.

“A lot of people say, ‘You can’t eat prestige.’ I think that’s true,” says Adam Rizzo, museum educator and president of the PMA union.

Like other professional workers who have recently unionized, such as architects and university adjuncts, museum workers point to the expensive degrees their jobs require when demanding higher pay.

“We don’t make enough money to pay off our student loans to buy a house,” Rizzo says.

Workers at that museum earn about 30 percent less on average than institutions of a similar size and budget, based on data from an industry-wide survey, according to the union. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an endowment of $600 million and an annual budget of $60 million, according to financial documents on its website.

In 2020, workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union representing nonprofit, government and arts workers. Since then, they have been negotiating with the management for a first contract. Points of contention remain over the big ticket items: salary, benefits, promotions.

Management has proposed increases of up to 11 percent through July 1, 2024, as well as four weeks of parental leave, among other proposals, according to the museum’s director of communications, Norman Keyes. But workers say those increases have been canceled out by high inflation and do not correct underlying low wages.

On September 26, the local union organization of about 180 people went on strike.

Museum seamstress Beth Paolini, one of the workers picketing Wednesday outside the museum’s north entrance, has worked there for more than 17 years and earns less than $50,000 a year.

“I’ve never gotten a promotion in the years since I’ve worked here,” Paolini says.

Beth Paolini, a seamstress at a museum, brings her washboard to make noise during strike protests.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

Online transparency boosts museum union efforts

Museums last saw a wave of labor activism in the 1970s and 1980s.

Then many began offering educational programs and hiring teachers, some of whom previously had union representation, according to Laura-Edith Coleman, assistant professor of arts administration and museum leadership at Drexel University.

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