‘Inequities and biases’: Workers petition for union at Philadelphia Museum of Art ahead of reopening

A push for a union was brewing before the museum was shut because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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 have filed a petition with management with the intent to form a labor union. Organizers claim the petition was filed by a majority of eligible employees across many departments.

The PMA has been closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with no scheduled reopening date. The proposed union, which would be part of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 47, wants to ensure that when the museum eventually reopens it will prioritize visitor and staff safety, and that the institution’s financial losses due to the pandemic shutdown will not land on “programs that serve our community and the workers who are already the most vulnerable.”

“We know there is a reopening committee, but with 65% of rank and file staff involved in this unionization effort, not a single one of us is involved in those conversations,” said Sarah Shaw, a union organizer and education coordinator for the museum. “We have very little information about the plans.”

Nicole Cook, who works in academic engagement at the museum, said the union involves workers from across a wide range of departments.

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“Even jobs people might not think about first and foremost at a museum,” she said. “People who handle our art, who research it, curate it, serve educational roles to teach the public about our art, as well as people who fundraise to support back-of-house operation, people who are on the front lines with audiences.”

The PMA should be a safe, accessible, equitable home for the arts in Philly. Today, a super majority of workers across the entire Philadelphia Museum of Art filed to unionize with @afscmeDC47. Read more: https://t.co/ut6UiiXxbj pic.twitter.com/R70WrsZOoW

— Philadelphia Museum of Art Union (@PMA_Union) May 22, 2020

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AFSCME DC 47 is part of one of the largest labor organizations in the country. DC47 already represents white-collar employees of the City of Philadelphia.

Calls for a union predate the coronavirus pandemic. About a year ago, some workers started entering their salaries into an online spreadsheet shared with other museum workers across the country. Conversations about compensation led to talks about equity and transparency.

“The lack of transparency allows for inequities and biases. That’s across the museum sector across the country,” said Shaw. “We talk about inclusion, but we can’t achieve that in the cultural sector if the system is stacked against someone who does not have race and class and educational privilege.”

In February, workers started pushing back against management when claims of sexual harassment by a former executive were made public in news reporting, as well as alleged abuse by a manager.

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According to Shaw, the organizing effort had achieved the necessary majority of workers by March, before the pandemic shut down the museum. However, the group had to wait to file paperwork until the National Labor Relations Board reopened its offices.

A museum spokesperson acknowledged in an email that management has received the petition for the proposed union. CEO Timothy Rub and Board Chair Leslie Anne Miller have the option to voluntarily recognize the union. If they do not choose to recognize, a vote would occur that would either force a union or invalidate it.

Organizers point to the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, which voluntarily recognized a union of 100 employees in December, forgoing the ballot process.

Museum spokesman Norman Keyes said management will consider the petition after the Memorial Day weekend.

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