Above Photo: Sept. 29 protest. WW Joe Piette.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Since Sept. 26, almost 200 workers have been on strike — not reporting for work in person or virtually — at one of the oldest and largest art museums in the U.S. with over 240,000 works of art from around the world.
Members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 397, affiliated with AFSCME District Council 47, voted for union representation in a landslide, 89% “yes” vote in August 2020. Since then, the PMA Board of Trustees and executive management have refused to come to an agreement with the PMA Union.
After over two years of fruitless talks, after filing a lengthy Unfair Labor Practice charge against museum management, after a strike authorization vote of 99% and after holding a one-day warning strike Sept. 16, workers finally walked off the job Sept. 26.
Union members and supporters are holding daily fast-paced picket lines at the Museum’s North and West entrances, the loading dock, PMA’s Perelman Building across the street and the Rodin Museum a few blocks away. A strike fund — to which donations can be made at tinyurl.com/397strikefund — has allowed the union to give its members some funds to help tide them over until the strike is won.
‘What does PMA have to hide? They exploit workers inside!’
In a letter delivered to the Philadelphia City Council Sept. 28, AFSCME DC 47 President Kathy Scott reported that following the Sept. 16 one-day strike, some progress was made. PMA agreed to limit the use of temporary workers and subcontractors, and they moved from two weeks to four weeks of paid parental leave.
But pay and health care remain major stumbling blocks. Despite being in the top 7% of U.S. art museums in terms of endowment size, PMA has not increased wages since 2019, amid high inflation. Full-time jobs at the museum pay 33% percent less than other art institutions with similarly sized budgets. And PMA pays no rent on the city-owned facilities; the city pays for its utilities.
PMA proposed a total 11% wage increase over 33 months, but union members reject a 3.6% annual wage increase when inflation is over 8%. Many museum workers, despite their often having college degrees and specific skill sets, made only $10 an hour until January, when the Museum was obligated to increase minimum wages to $15 an hour under the city’s living wage ordinance. PMA is refusing to agree to Local 397’s proposal to raise minimum pay to $16.75.
Union demands include that all raises be retroactive to July 1, when nonunion employees received pay increases. PMA refuses to provide longevity pay, which would amount to $500 a year for every five years of service. Management refuses to provide any relief from the sky-high costs of health care; 90% of workers are forced into a high-deductible plan.
‘No Justice, No Peace! No Contract − No Matisse!’
This popular chant is a reference to the upcoming exhibition of the works of French impressionist painter Henri Matisse, called “Matisse in the 1930s,” which is scheduled to open Oct. 20. The show will include more than 100 drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures, from public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe, as well as archival photos and documentary films.
Crucial installation work ahead of the exhibition, including safely handling the most highly valued art itself, is not yet finished. Local 397 President Adam Rizzo reported: “Everyone who installs the paintings — they’re out here today on the lines.”
‘The art museum is not fine. Please don’t cross our picket line!’
Constant picketing at all five museum facility entrances throughout the day by Local 397’s 180 members is aided by Philadelphia area labor and community organizations. In response to PMA Union’s appeal to join the picket lines, members of the Teamsters union, AFSCME, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, UNITE HERE and other unions; progressive members of the city council and state legislature; activists in the Save UC Townhomes Coalition; and others have helped make the picket lines effective.
When bigger numbers are on the lines, more people agree to not cross the picket line and turn away. Instead of entering the PMA, customers are urged to visit the Barnes Foundation Museum, one of the world’s greatest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist and modern art, just a few blocks away.
Management failed to even show up at a scheduled negotiations meeting Sept. 28 with Local 397 officials. The end of this strike doesn’t seem imminent. What will force PMA big shots to give in? More solidarity! Visit tinyurl.com/3su9jkpk for information about how to support the strike.