AFSCME brings Convention power, momentum to rally for Philadelphia Art Museum workers

AFSCME members showed up in force at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to demand a fair contract for the museum workers. Photo: Daniel Jackson.
By AFSCME Staff ,

They showed up in the thousands for their union family.

Attendees to AFSCME’s 45th International Convention brought the momentum and power they’ve generated in the Pennsylvania Convention Center to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Wednesday to rally for their fellow AFSCME members who have been denied a fair contract for going on two years.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art Union, which organized with AFSCME as PMA Union Local 397 (AFSCME District Council 47) in August 2020, has been stonewalled by museum management, which has refused to compromise on measures that would provide staff with greater job security, pay and safety from harassment.

Nearly two years ago, PMA workers made history by voting 89% in favor of forming the country’s first wall-to-wall museum union. A relatively new phenomenon in the cultural sector, a wall-to-wall union allows for all eligible workers, regardless of department, to unite as a single bargaining unit.

The museum’s unwillingness to concede to modest demands by their workers is puzzling, since the PMA boasts a $60 million annual budget, nearly a billion dollars in assets and pockets deep enough to hire a union-busting law firm.

“We’re here to let Philadelphia Museum of Art workers know they are not alone,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders from the steps of the PMA to the crowd. “Their entire AFSCME family … 1.4 million members strong … has their back and will stay in the foxhole with them until they get a contract. We are all together in this fight.”

AFSCME is making a $25,000 contribution to the PMA Union’s strike fund. Go here to make your own contribution.

AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride underscored the turnout by the Green Machine in support of the PMA workers.

“It is so good to bring this fight to your boss’ doorstep. I hope you feel lifted up by this sea of AFSCME green,” McBride said. “By the time this is over, they (management) are going to (know) that when you pick a fight with workers in this town, you pick a fight with all of us.”

Leaders of PMA Union Local 397, who are part of a larger movement of cultural workers organizing for a voice on the job, painted a vivid picture of the wage stagnation and the hurdles they have been facing.

PMA Local 397 President Adam Rizzo, who has been working in the museum’s education department for almost eight years, called out the PMA for laying off 127 workers during the pandemic despite taking nearly $11 million in federal pandemic relief assistance that was supposed to protect workers.

“I have a message for Board Chair Leslie Anne Miller and COO Bill Petersen,” said Rizzo. “Your union busting behavior over the past two years has made it abundantly clear that you have no respect for the workers who make the museum the incredible place it is. We won’t stand for it and neither will the city of Philadelphia.”

Cathy Scott, president of District Council 47, said PMA management’s attitude toward workers has been “despicable” and “mean spirited.” Workers are resisting management’s push to hire an unlimited number of temporary workers “with zero benefits, zero union representation and zero job security,” Scott said.

“They’re deliberately trying to push out long-term workers here at the museum – the same workers who voted to unionize here. There’s only word for that – it’s union busting,” Scott said.

Sarah Roche, a gallery maintenance technician who was hired in 1997, described how her pay has hardly improved in nearly a quarter century of work at the museum.

“I have not had a meaningful raise in a very long time, not since the Bush administration!” said Roche. “They said I hit a plateau for my job description. Despite this disappointment, I decided to stay. Why? Well, I enjoy my work and I am quite good at it. But with the cost of living far outpacing my wage, it’s getting harder and harder to continue working at the museum I love.”

Ernest Garrett, president of AFSCME District Council 33 in Philadelphia, sent a message of solidarity to his fellow Philadelphians on behalf of his council.

“This is our time to let them know they’re going to give us a fair contract or we’re gonna do what we always do – fight,” he said.

Not only were the workers buoyed by the show of solidarity as AFSCME members from across the country stood on the steps made famous by the movie “Rocky,” but the AFSCME family helped amplify the workers’ message to museum management: give these workers the contract they deserve.

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