Art Museum workers continue strike into second week

No negotiations have taken place since the newly unionized Philadelphia Museum of Art workers began an ongoing strike on September 26.

Art Museum workers out in the rain on the 8th day of their strike, October 3, 2022. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Art Museum workers out in the rain on the 8th day of their strike, October 3, 2022. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

On the eighth day of a sustained strike, unionized workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art picketed in the rain, imploring people entering the museum to reconsider their visit.

“I’m really impressed with everyone who’s still coming out every day in this weather. It’s not easy to not collect a paycheck, much more to come out and be in the rain and the cold all day,” said Adam Rizzo, museum educator and president of Local 397 of AFSCME District Council 47. “It’s really moving to see coworkers support each other like this.”

In the week since the strike began, there have been no negotiations between workers and management.

After two years of negotiating, the union called a strike on September 26 when management came to the table with an offer to raise wages an average of 8.5% in the first 10 months of the contract, and 11% by July 2024, among other benefits such as four weeks of paid parental leave and accelerated eligibility for new employees to access medical coverage.

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That was not acceptable to the union, particularly after three years of no raises at all and during an era with an inflation rate over 8%.

Rizzo said relatively low salaries and expensive health benefits compared to other, similar museums have caused a “brain drain” as workers leave for jobs elsewhere.

“We make about 30% less than other peer institutions,” he said. “The museum has an operating budget of more than $60 million a year annually with an endowment of more than $600 million. So what we’re asking for, we’re really not asking for much.”

According to a museum spokesperson, that proposal which had been rejected by the union still stands as museum management’s best offer. It was prepared to come to the regularly scheduled Friday negotiation session on September 30 but were advised not to meet that day by a neutral federal mediator.

“After consultation with both parties on Thursday evening and Friday morning, the federal mediator felt that the planned Friday session would not be productive,” said a museum spokesperson.

Nevertheless, Rizzo said union negotiators arrived at the Friday meeting to find no one there.

“It shows the kind of complete lack of respect that they have for the workers here who are outside striking for a living wage,” he said. “I’m hopeful they’ll come to the table soon. We’re ready.”

In a statement, the Museum said it remains committed to “reaching a collective bargaining agreement that is both fair to our staff and responsible to the long-term sustainability of the institution.”

If there was no movement at the negotiation table last week, there was plenty of action elsewhere.

The union began its strike on the same day the museum’s new director and CEO, Sasha Suda, began the job. Suda comes from a unionized museum, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and had been a unionized museum worker earlier in her career. The PMA union had been hopeful that her leadership would prompt a more acceptable offer.

Suda has not addressed the union leaders or the strike since taking the helm last week. A museum spokesperson said Suda will not be part of the negotiations.

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Last week, the president of the union’s parent organization, AFSCME 47, sent a letter to members of Philadelphia City Council. Catherine Scott of AFSCME 47 laid out some sticking points for the union:

“We have clearly communicated to PMA management’s negotiators that we need movement on five core issues,” read the letter. “Make the first across-the-board raise retroactive to July 1, 2022, when the museum gave raises to all non-union staff; recognize employees’ longevity with the museum with a $500 increase for every five years of service; increase across-the-board raises overall; establish a minimum of $16.75 for hourly employees; and reduce healthcare costs.”

The strike has gotten favorable attention from some elected officials, like Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval, who briefly joined the picket. Other unions, like the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, have lent support. Also, staunchly pro-union British folk musician Billy Bragg reportedly shouted out the PMA Union from the stage on Sunday night during a performance at the Town Hall in New York City.

The union says it will keep picketing every day this week. The museum will be closed, as per usual, on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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