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Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo: Wikipedia.

Philadelphia Museum of Art Workers Seek to Unionize

After a year of organizing, staff members at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) launched a union drive. On Friday, they announced their intent to join District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). By unionizing, organizers are hoping the museum, which is currently closed because of the Covid-19 outbreak, will prioritize ensuring worker and visitor safety and maintaining programs that serve the community as it works to recover from the financial fallout from the pandemic.

Employees also want to unionize to empower staff who face incidents of harassment and discrimination. In January, the museum was criticized over its mishandling of previous misconduct allegations against a male manager, who resigned in 2018 and then went on to become the director of the Erie Art Museum. Following a New York Times report that interviewed nine women who worked with Joshua Helmer at the PMA, hundreds of current and former employees signed a statement of solidarity with the women who spoke out, and Pennsylvania lawmakers called for “structural change” at the museum, including new harassment policies and training. Helmer, who declined to provide a comment to the New York Times, was forced out of the directorship at the Erie Art Museum on January 13.

The union-eligible staffers are requesting that museum management follow the example of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Shed in New York and voluntarily recognize the union, which would eliminate the need for the NLRB to oversee an election. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the institution confirmed that Timothy Rub, the PMA’s CEO and director, and Leslie Anne Miller, the chair of the board of trustees, received a letter from organizers. A spokesperson told the publication that the museum “recognizes the right to organize” and “will give it close attention following the holiday weekend.”

“We are facing challenges that our institution and city have never faced before,” reads a statement issued by the Philadelphia Museum of Art Union. “Whatever the future holds, we will be better able to face it with an empowered workforce that can bring all its passion and creativity to bear in service to the community and collection. We are eager to take on these challenges in solidarity with one another and in cooperation with management, executive leadership, and the board of trustees, which is why we have requested voluntary recognition.”

AFSCME also represents workers at other Philadelphia organizations, including the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Zoo, as well as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and American Museum of Natural History.

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