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Lessons from the Picket Line at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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On October 14, 2022, after 19 days of picketing in rain and sun, my colleagues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) ended our historic strike. The union contract we won guarantees Wage increases of 14% over the duration of the three-year agreement, a reduction in the cost of our health insurance and four weeks paid parental leave, among other improvements that have taken years to materialize.

Since the end of our strike last October, the workers of the Please touch the museum in Philadelphia, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio, the Storm King Art Center in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago, among others, have all won union elections. University workers from Temple University And Rutgers University also waged successful strikes in their fight for decent pay and better working conditions, while some, like the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York, remain on strike as of this writing. As we see more and more union organizations in the museum world and beyond, here are four of the things I learned at the PMA that I want to share with my colleagues in the arts, culture and education.

Everywhere, precariousness harms workers everywhere

I was hired as an educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014 after doing graduate school in New York. I loved teaching, but hated the hustle and bustle of auxiliary training and wanted a greater sense of job security.

Museum education seemed like a dream. Over the weeks of interviews, I never broached the subject of compensation – I was just happy to be considered. When I was finally offered the job, the hiring manager said something like, “We’re not doing this for the money,” and offered me $40,000 a year. I accepted without negotiating. Nine years later and in the midst of record inflation, there are still people working full time at the museum earning less than that.

Change starts with talking to your colleagues, all

In 2019, a group called Art + Museum Transparency launched a pay transparency worksheet. Museum employees anonymously shared information about their salaries and benefits. It opened my eyes. I learned that my colleague, who had the same title as me and had more experience in museum education, earned about $7,000 less than me per year. I am a man and she is a woman. The more frankly we spoke to each other, not only within our department but between teams, the clearer the inequalities became.

In large museums, the different departments are often isolated from each other. This makes it easier for abusive managers to maintain poweras we lived more than one time; it also makes it harder for workers to see the many issues they have in common. When we started talking about a union, we found that curators, educators, hospitality staff, art managers, fundraisers and others were all overworked, under- paid and treated as disposable. When we filed our candidacy for union elections, we did so as first wall-to-wall bargaining unit in a major museum in the United States, and we went win our election by 89%. This unity was not only a moral victory; it meant that when we went on strike, we had a huge impact. And when we were on the picket line, we built incredible relationships across departments that will support and inform us in the future.

The boss is the best organizer

Anyone familiar with union busting tactics will recognize the tools that our senior executives and Morgan Lewis, their “union avoidance” law firm, used throughout the process: making the union a third party instead of its own employees, sending weekly emails misrepresenting the state of negotiations and increasing wages only for non-union employees.

However, we had an important tool on our side: open negotiation. Throughout the two years of bargaining, we held our bargaining sessions over Zoom, with any union member able to sit down and observe. After witnessing the behavior of management at the bargaining table, members no longer needed to be persuaded to act. They saw what was needed with their own eyes.

Adam Rizzo, educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, speaks with a reporter during last year’s strike Photo by Tim Tiebout

Maybe management thought that if negotiations dragged on long enough, high turnover would cause us to lose momentum. Instead, each act of stalling and disrespect has convinced more and more workers to get involved, whether they’ve been in PMA for ten years or two weeks. When we voted to authorize a strike, we did so with 99% of the vote because each member had had the chance to draw their own conclusions and make an informed decision.

Recognize your power and resources

We timed our strike to align with the installation of the museum’s major fall exhibit, Matisse in the 1930s, knowing that our board wouldn’t want a big loan show — or the whimsical opening night, scheduled for Oct. 15 — to be cut short or delayed. We picketed every day the museum was open to the public, which significantly reduced admission revenue. We relied on the Philadelphia community, who joined us on the picket line and supported us with food, coffee and donations to our strike fund. Local artists, unions and elected officials all added their voices in support.

A museum that goes on strike does not disrupt the manufacture of a product or bring other industries to a standstill. But our workplaces are highly visible, have formal or informal obligations to the public, and cannot simply be closed and reopened elsewhere. These are all useful factors in creating powerful pressure campaigns.

A union contract is not a silver bullet. Now that we have one, we need to make sure it is put into practice every day. But we returned to work with a new sense of togetherness and power. When we negotiate our next contract for 2025, perhaps our board and senior management will have learned something from this experience. Their workers certainly did.

  • Adam Rizzo is an educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and president of the museums union

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