Please Touch Museum workers form a rare union for a children’s museum

The 40-person unit with the AFSCME is one of the few children’s museum unions in the country.

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The exterior of the Please Touch Museum

The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On Saturday, 40 workers from several departments within Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum voted in a process overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. A supermajority of 34 voted ‘yes’ to unionizing.

Organizing efforts toward a union began last year, inspired by watching the workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art negotiate their first contract after a 19-day strike.

Workers at the Please Touch Museum voted to form a unit with the same union as the Art Museum: American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees District (AFSCME). It is one of the few children’s museums in the country to unionize.

​​”These workers provide our city with just as vital a public service as teachers and librarians do,” said April Gigetts, president of AFSCME District Council 47. “They deserve fair compensation and safe working conditions.”

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Museum management said in a statement that once the votes are certified, it will begin collective bargaining negotiations for a “positive and productive outcome.”

Museum educator Anand Ghorpadey said there has been a high turnover rate at the museum, due in part to wages and benefits, which has caused staff members to lose passion for the job.

“Not being able to pay our bills on time, or worrying about: ‘What if I get sick and I go to the doctor and my insurance doesn’t cover that?’” he said. “If we work together with the museum, we can get back that passion, that love that we have for the job. Because at the end of the day, we all do it because we want to impact our community.”

Workers also had concerns about safety. Ghorpadey said that parents visiting the museum with their children sometimes have disagreements with staff, and there is no security protocol when those disagreements escalate.

“People get very territorial over their kids, and understandably get extra protective. But that also created an environment where we did not feel safe,” he said.

“I’ve witnessed situations where guests have said that they’re going to wait for staff members outside. Those are physical threats of violence. In those situations, we don’t always feel like the museum is taking every possible precaution to safeguard our well-being,” said Ghorpadey.

The Please Touch Museum has had its share of turbulence over the last several years. It filed for bankruptcy in 2015, from which it emerged less than a year later. Then, during the pandemic, the hands-on museum was forced to close and reopen a few times for safety concerns. In 2021, some former employees came forward with complaints about a hostile work environment.

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Ghorpadey, who has worked at Please Touch for about 9 months, believes the union will improve the institution.

“It came from a lot of concern,” he said. “But also a lot of love for the museum that we work at.”

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