(Philadelphia) – Workers are organizing in areas where they haven’t had a big presence, including world-class cultural institutions. Staff at about two dozen museums across 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, famous for its vast collection and its appearance in the film Rockyis emblematic of the tensions that animate this movement.
A common thread, say union organizers, it’s the contradiction that comes from working with priceless works of art or history while struggling to pay your 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 recently unionized professional workers, such as architects and adjunct university professors, 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 this museum earn about 30% less on average than institutions of similar size and budget, based on figures from an industry-wide survey, according to the union. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a $600 million endowment 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 employees. Since then, they have been negotiating with management on a first contract. Sticking points remain around big jobs: salary, benefits, raises.
Management has proposed increases of up to 11% by July 1, 2024, as well as four weeks of parental leave, among other proposals, according to museum communications director Norman Keyes. But workers say those increases are negated by high inflation and do not correct underlying low wages.
On September 26, the local union branch of about 180 people went on strike.
Museum seamstress Beth Paolini, one of the workers picketing the museum’s north entrance on Wednesday, has worked there for more than 17 years and earns less than $50,000 a year.
“In all the years I’ve worked here, I’ve never gotten a promotion raise,” says Paolini.
Online transparency has boosted museum union campaigns
Museums last saw a wave of union activism in the 1970s and 1980s.
That’s when many began offering educational programs and hiring teachers, some of whom previously had union representation, according to Laura-Edythe Coleman, assistant professor of arts administration and museum leadership at Drexel University.
In this wave, the organizational tools are different. Online spaces for museum workers to disseminate and share information have emerged, such as Museum Workers Speak and the Art + Museum Transparency Spreadsheet, an online document launched in 2019 where museum workers could disclose their salaries anonymously.
“Suddenly, museum workers…could see big differences in pay between people who worked in the same jobs, in the same institutions sometimes, but also between institutions,” Coleman says.
The spreadsheet helped draw museum workers in Philadelphia.
“That’s how I learned that I was actually earning less than some of the fellows I had to advise,” says Nicole Cook, head of the graduate college partnership program at the art museum and one of the people who helped compile the data. Cook has a doctorate in art history and also works at two universities to earn more money.
Other cultural changes have also helped to create a more union-friendly environment. Complaints by employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art about a middle manager who allegedly sexually harassed female employees working under him, “sparked a lot of conversations about fighting against that silo and that sense of secrecy,” Cook says.
Philadelphia strike appears to be longest in recent history
First contracts can take years to complete, 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 employees at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston staged a one-day strike in November 2021, when both were pursuing their first contracts. But the Philadelphia walkout appears to be the longest strike by American museum workers in recent history.
“It’s the loudest, longest strike I’ve ever seen,” Coleman said.
The museum remains open during the strike, and Keyes says non-union staff cover the roles of some strikers. He repeatedly refused to comment when asked if outside workers had been brought in to mount a new Matisse exhibit, which the union had raised concerns about.
In addition to this combat, there is also a more important strategy. The number of unionized professional or technical workers has increased over time, according to AFL-CIO data, even as the overall proportion of the national workforce that is unionized has declined.
The organization of a workplace can serve as an example for other similar workplaces to follow suit. Adam Rizzo, an educator at the art museum and one of the union’s leaders, says when it formed, it also created a new chapter, Local 397, which employees from other museums could join.
“All of these wonderful institutions are living what we are going through…and I think the workers have just had enough,” Rizzo says.
Last year, employees of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology voted to join them.