(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.
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.
In this wave, the organizing tools are different. Online spaces have emerged for museum workers to vent and share information, such as Museum Workers Speak and the Art + Museum Transparency spreadsheet, an online document launched in 2019 where museum workers can anonymously disclose their salaries.
“Suddenly, museum workers … were able to see huge differences in pay between people working in the same job, sometimes in the same institutions, but also between institutions,” says Coleman.
The spreadsheet helped ignite museum staff in Philadelphia.
“So I learned that I was actually making less than some of the fellows I was supposed to advise,” says Nicole Cook, program manager for graduate academic partnerships at the art museum and one of the people who helped put it together. the data. Cook has a PhD in art history and worked at two universities to make more money.
Other cultural changes also contributed to a more union-friendly environment. Complaints by employees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art about a middle manager who allegedly sexually harassed employees working under him “started a lot of conversations about fighting that isolation and that sense of secrecy,” Cook says.
The strike in Philadelphia appears to be the longest in recent history
Achieving the first contracts can take years, and not every union that forms will get one, according to data from the National Labor Relations Board.
Workers at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York staged protests earlier this year, and workers at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston staged a one-day walkout in November 2021 as both pursued their first contracts. But the walkout in Philadelphia appears to be the longest strike by American museum workers in recent history.
“It’s the loudest, longest shot I’ve ever seen,” says Coleman.
The museum remains open during the strike, and Keyes says non-union staff are covering the roles of some strikers. He repeatedly declined to comment when asked if outside workers were being brought in to mount a new Matisse exhibit, which the union raised concerns about.
Beyond this battle, there is a larger strategy. The number of unionized professional or technical workers has increased over time, according to data from the AFL-CIO, although the overall share of the national workforce that is unionized has declined.
Organizing one workplace can serve as an example for other similar workplaces to do the same. Adam Rizzo, an art museum educator and one of the union’s leaders, says that when it formed, it also created a new chapter, Local 397, that employees at other museums can join.
“All these wonderful institutions are going through what we’re going through … and I think the workers are fed up,” Rizzo says.
Last year, staff at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology voted to join them.