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Strike by Philadelphia Museum of Art workers shows woes of 'prestige' jobs

Philadelphia Museum of Art employees picket outside the north entrance on Oct. 5, 2022. Two years after the museum workers joined a union, they voted to strike during first contract negotiations.
Laura Benshoff/NPR
Philadelphia Museum of Art employees picket outside the north entrance on Oct. 5, 2022. Two years after the museum workers joined a union, they voted to strike during first contract negotiations.

Updated October 8, 2022 at 10:12 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA — Workers are unionizing in fields where they haven't had a big presence, including world-class cultural institutions. Staff at around two dozen museums across the United States have joined unions since 2019, according to an NPR analysis of news reports and announcements.

An ongoing strike at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, famous for its sweeping collection and cameo in the movie Rocky, is emblematic of the tensions driving this movement.

One common thread, union organizers say, is the contradiction that comes from working with priceless pieces of art or history while struggling to pay your bills.

"A lot of people say, 'You can't eat prestige.' I think that's true," says Adam Rizzo, museum educator and president of the PMA union.

Like other professional workers who recently unionized, such as architects and adjunct university faculty, museum workers point to the expensive degrees their jobs require when demanding higher pay.

"We don't make enough money to actually pay off our student loans to buy a house," says Rizzo.

Workers at this museum make about 30% less on average compared to institutions of a similar size and budget based on figures from an industry-wide survey, according to the union. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a $600 million endowment and a $60 million annual budget, according to financial documents on its website.

In 2020, workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union representing employees in non-profits, government and the arts. Since then have been bargaining with management over a first contract. Sticking points remain around big ticket items: salary, benefits, raises.

Management has offered raises adding up to 11% by July 1, 2024, as well as four weeks of parental leave, among other proposals, according to museum communications director Norman Keyes. But the workers say these raises are canceled out by high inflation, and don't fix the underlying low salaries.

On Sept. 26, the local union chapter of around 180 people went on strike.

Museum seamstress Beth Paolini, one of the workers picketing Wednesday outside the museum's north entrance, has worked there for more than 17 years and earns less than $50,000 annually.

"I have never in all the years I have worked here gotten any kind of promotional raise," says Paolini.

Beth Paolini, museum seamstress, brings her washboard to make noise during strike protests.
/ Laura Benshoff/NPR
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Laura Benshoff/NPR
Beth Paolini, museum seamstress, brings her washboard to make noise during strike protests.

Online transparency spurred museum union drives

Museums last saw a wave of labor activism in the 1970s and '80s.

That's when many began offering educational programming and hiring teachers, some who had previously had union representation, according to Laura-Edythe Coleman, assistant professor of Arts Administration and Museum Leadership at Drexel University.

In this wave, the organizing tools are different. Online spaces for museum workers to vent and share information have cropped up, such as Museum Workers Speak and the Art + Museum Transparency spreadsheet, an online document launched in 2019 where museum workers could anonymously disclose their salaries.

"Suddenly museum workers ... were able to see vast differences in pay between people who worked in the same jobs, in the same institutions sometimes, but also across institutions," says Coleman.

The spreadsheet helped fire up museum employees in Philadelphia.

"That's how I learned that I was actually making less than some of the fellows who I was meant to be advising," says Nicole Cook, program manager for graduate academic partnerships at the art museum and one of the people who helped compile the data. Cook has a doctorate in Art History and also works at two universities to make more money.

Other cultural shifts also contributed to a more union-friendly environment. Complaints by Philadelphia Museum of Art employees about a mid-level manager who was allegedly sexually harassing female employees working under him, "started a lot of conversations about fighting against this siloing and this sense of secrecy," says Cook.

The Philadelphia strike appears to be the longest in recent history

First contracts can take years to reach, and not every union that forms will get one, according to data from the National Labor Relations Board.

Workers at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City held protests earlier this year, and employees at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston staged a one-day walkout in November 2021, as both pursued their first contracts. But the Philadelphia walkout appears to be the longest strike by U.S. museum workers in recent history.

"This is the loudest, longest strike that I've seen," says Coleman.

The museum is staying open during the strike, and Keyes says non-union staff are covering the roles of some strikers. He repeatedly declined to comment when asked if outside workers were brought in to mount a new Matisse exhibit, which the union raised concerns about.

Around 180 Philadelphia Museum of Art workers, from retail staff to educators, have been on strike since Sept. 26, 2022.
/ Laura Benshoff/NPR
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Laura Benshoff/NPR
Around 180 Philadelphia Museum of Art workers, from retail staff to educators, have been on strike since Sept. 26, 2022.

Aside from this one fight, there's also a bigger strategy. The number of unionized professional or technical workers has increased over time, according to data from the AFL-CIO, even as the total proportion of the national workforce that is unionized has declined.

Organizing one workplace can serve as an example for other similar workplaces to do the same. Adam Rizzo, art museum educator and one of the union's leaders, says when it formed, it also created a new chapter, Local 397, which employees at other museums could join.

"All of these wonderful institutions are experiencing what we're experiencing ... and I think workers have just had enough," says Rizzo.

Last year, employees at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology voted to join them.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.