Employees at Philadelphia Museum of Art vote to unionize

Philadelphia Art Museum

People gather on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to join a union and begin collective bargaining.

With 89% voting to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 47, the bargaining unit will represent “wall-to-wall” workers, meaning any union-eligible worker across all departments.

The Art Museum has been closed since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic with the intention to reopen in September. The workers mailed in their ballots between July 9 and July 30, with a vote count on Thursday.

The final tally was 181 voting yes, 22 voting no.

“It’s about time we had a union,” said Noah Thompson, a visitor services assistant at the museum. “It marks a shift in how we will be engaging as a Philadelphia institution. We are one of the largest unions at a single museum.”

The driving issue was transparency, wanting to be involved with management in decisions like hiring, benefits, diversity and safety protocols as the museum plans to reopen, Thompson said.

“There needs to be more communication on all levels so we’re all on the same page. That was the biggest driving point,” said Thompson. “It’s up to everyone to make the museum a better place.”

“Just as we respected the right of staff to organize at the outset, we also respect today’s outcome,” said museum CEO Timothy Rub in a statement. “As we move towards the development of a collective bargaining agreement, we pledge to work in good faith to achieve the best outcome for our staff and for this institution.”

The effort to mobilize workers to unionize preceded the pandemic. Employees started sharing grievances with one another about a year ago, when an open spreadsheet of museum salaries began circulating around the country. When accusations of misconduct by members of management surfaced in February, the unionization effort gained traction.

Members said they already had a “supermajority” of union-eligible employees ready to vote for unionization in March, but filing paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board was delayed when the NLRB shut down its offices because of the pandemic. Workers filed a petition to hold an election in May.

On Tuesday, two days before the union ballots were counted, Rub announced a round of layoffs that reduced staff by 23%: 85 employees were laid off, and another 42 agreed to leave. Unionizing employees claim most of those laid off were union-eligible.

One of those laid-off employees was Sarah Shaw, a museum educator for more than three years, who helped organize the unionization effort.

“The timing of the layoffs feels not coincidental. It’s hard to tell for sure,” she said. Even though newly unemployed, she was at the local office of AFSCME on Thursday as the votes were counted, and celebrated with her former colleagues.

“Through all of the setbacks and challenges and the ways the museum has tried to discourage unionization, it’s important to show strength and confidence, and challenge that status quo,” she said. “It wasn’t going to stop me from seeing through this election.”

The next step for the union is to begin a bargaining process for a contract, which can take years. Shaw expects the size of the bargaining unit to grow to 250 to 300 employees as the museum reopens and may grow its staff again.

“It’s a very joyous moment for us, but I’m also equally sad and frustrated for all the colleagues who were let go before winning this,” said Thompson. “I hope this union victory is a symbol for institutions across Philadelphia as an example of how you can create a better workplace, especially in the cultural sector.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal