Philadelphia Museum of Art union strikes should compel community support

By Sophia Lennox

Elm Staff Writer

The employees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art went on strike on Sept. 26, 2022, alleging in a press release that “museum management has committed eight different violations of federal labor law and engaged in union-busting tactics.” 

This was not the first time the museum had conflict between administrators and employees. According to another PMA union press release, the union was established in 2020 after museum employees voted 89% in favor of formal organization. 

Prior to this, there were a number of reports of abuse and employee mistreatment, and staff members were growing tired of the PMA not holding senior management accountable. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the PMA continued to employ former manager James Cincotta after an internal investigation in 2016 stemming from multiple reports of him hitting, punching, and bruising coworkers. According to The New York Times, in 2018, the PMA did not address employee concerns over former manager Joshua Helmer making “advances toward multiple female employees during his tenure.”

During the 2022 strike, the union established guidelines on how to show solidarity for the picket line, which included not visiting the PMA or affiliated Rodin Museum, not purchasing anything from the physical or online gift shops, and not applying for the jobs that were created to replace striking workers. They additionally created a strike fund to collect money to support employees who went on strike and did not have the financial means to go without a paycheck. 

According to the Art Newspaper, after 19 days on strike, the union and PMA finally came to an agreement. The contract included wage increases, increased paternity leave, an established minimum wage of $16.75, and importantly, longevity pay, which would give employees incremental salary increases for every five years of employment.

After the strike ended, the union no longer asked people to stop visiting the museum, but they still asked for support from the community. The PMA exhibit “Matisse in the 1930s” was installed by “scabs,” temporary workers that were hired to fill the museum’s needs instead of negotiating with their striking workers. In solidarity with the art handlers that were on strike, the union asked visitors not to visit the exhibit.

However, since the establishment of the contract, the relationship between PMA and employees has not entirely improved. On Jan. 12 of this year, the museum posted a statement on their Instagram page about their perspective on the longevity clause in the contract. For outside viewers, this seemed out of the blue as there had not been any news or prior information from the PMA on this topic in over a year.

The union’s Instagram page quickly commented that even though it had been over a year since the contract, employees had not received their longevity pay. According to the union website, they have been working on getting the museum to uphold their end of the agreement, and even though it had been over a year since signing, the PMA had not made any action on fulfilling their commitments. 

Although not a lot of information has been made public, there are issues behind the scenes between museum administrators and unionized employees, exemplified through the sudden public dispute on longevity pay. As museum visitors, it is important to validate and support the employees that make exhibits, educational programs, and tours possible. How can we support the employees of our institutional relationships? 

My grandparents grew up in Philadelphia, and the museum was a big source of pride for them and their community. They would play in the fountain, run on the stairs, and visit frequently on school trips. When they started a family, they did not have the means to afford a membership. The museum offered pay-what-you-wish Sundays, which offered them an opportunity to expose their six children to art. 

When I was a kid, my grandparents would take me, my siblings, and my cousins to the museum. We would spend the whole day playing in the galleries and exploring the rooms. They finally had the financial means to purchase their own membership, and they used it to instill a deep care for art in their grandchildren. When my grandmother passed away, I inherited her membership and her early member number, 1779. That membership, the number, and the significance of them both are incredibly important to me. 

I feel a strong, generational connection to the museum, but I also care very deeply about museum staff, living wages, and institutional transparency. 

Our relationships with institutions are complicated. During the strike, I did not cancel my membership. I could not give up the number that represents my grandparents’ financial freedom, my grandparents’ love for art, and the beginning of my journey to my art history major. I did not visit the museum during the strike, and tried to educate my friends and family about the union’s requests. But was that enough?

Post-strike, and during the union’s struggle for accountability, we can support the union by following their social media, spreading their requests, signing their open letters, emailing museum administration, and observing solidarity requests when they ask.

We can hold institutions accountable. We owe it not only to the employees, but also to ourselves, because if we are going to support an institution, we have to make sure that they respect the people that make it possible for us to have those experiences. 

Follow the PMA Union at @PhillyCWU and philadelphiamuseumofartunion.com.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo caption: Union members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art made headlines in 2022, and continue to ask for public support.

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