The Philadelphia Museum of Art Fought Them — These Workers Organized Anyway

Noah Thompson
Nicole Cook

Earlier this month, workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the largest art museums in the world, voted overwhelmingly to unionize. We spoke with two workers about how they fended off the museum’s fierce anti-union campaign — and why all white-collar workers should organize. 

Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the largest art museums in the world, voted overwhelmingly to unionize in August.

Interview by
Mindy Isser

On August 6, workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), one of the largest art museums in the world, voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 47. Their victory came after revelations of abuse, including a boss sexually harassing workers and another hitting on them, and a fierce anti-union campaign that saw the museum hire the union-busting firm Morgan Lewis.

The prestige of working at one of the most visited art museums in the world doesn’t translate to high pay and respect: many workers at the PMA struggle to get by, some making less than $15 an hour. And as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on workers across all industries, more and more white-collar workers might turn to union efforts to have a greater say in their workplaces. Already, some of this unrest has hit the broader museum world: a group calling themselves the Art + Museum Transparency team, led by a PMA worker, created a crowdsourced spreadsheet last year to share salaries and benefits at museums all over the world.

Jacobin contributor Mindy Isser interviewed Noah Thompson, an assistant in visitors’ services at PMA, and Nicole Cook, a program manager for academic partnerships, about the Philadelphia organizing drive and why white-collar workers need unions, too. Both have worked at the museum for about three years and sat on the union’s organizing committee.


MI

First, huge mazel tov and congratulations on your big victory — 89 percent is what we call a landslide. How are you feeling about your win?

NT

Very excited. It’s been fourteen months of incredible work and a little bit of whiplash going back and forth between everything that’s happened — Morgan Lewis, the pandemic, the election. I’m very excited because it shows that if we can create a wall-to-wall union in the midst of a pandemic and an anti-union campaign, everyone can. I’m excited to be proof to other people, in Philadelphia and other museums, that unions are possible.

It’s a momentous occasion, and we are incredibly excited and proud, but it’s also not lost on me — and I’m frustrated and sad — that about eighty-five of my colleagues were let go before our election. They deserved so much more.

NC

Someone asked me how I was doing right after we got the results, and it was the first moment in a while that I felt pure and utter joy. It’s a little surreal to be on the other side of the election, and with the announcement of the layoffs, it’s been a week of a lot of different emotions, a lot of highs and lows.

But I feel the passion and the support of all of those people who voted “yes” in the election, including those who are no longer working with us. We are very aware that this is a huge milestone and that we still have a long road ahead of us — so we’re trying to celebrate how far we’ve come and also get jazzed up about the next phase.

MI

Can you tell me about the layoffs? Were they union related or because of the pandemic or both?

NC

The museum instituted what they described as temporary furloughs at the end of June. At the time, there was some confusing information given out, but basically the museum instituted these furloughs along with a “voluntary separation package.” They furloughed about 130 people originally, and eighty-five ended up being laid off right before our vote count. It’s been a very tense and confusing summer for those even still actively working at the museum, because it was hard to know who was impacted, and there was a lot of fear and anxiety.

You see this at a lot of museums, but the connection between “reductions in forces” and public-facing staff is discussed as a natural result — like we have fewer programs, so we need fewer programmatic staff. But that to me feels like a lack of creative thinking about staff retention and what we could be doing for audiences. The majority of laid-off staff were public facing, in the galleries working with visitors every day.

NT

We don’t know who exactly was laid off, although I will personally say that all of the part-time staff in my department, visitors’ services, were laid off. My entire department, except for our director, was furloughed. Only full-time staff like me have been brought back.

People are overusing the phrases “uncertain times” and “unprecedented times” in this pandemic, but you really couldn’t be sure what was happening one day or the next. There was always that anxiety. And while I’m glad to be back, we will be missing all of that staff in our department, who are wonderful, talented people. I wish they could be back so we could work together to make the museum a safe and wonderful place for people to visit.

And about the voluntary separation packages, we were told staff would have the first two weeks of July to apply for it, and then would have until the end of August to change their mind, and that’s when they would determine who to lay off. And so the fact that the layoffs came not at the end of August but two days before our union election . . . Well, I can’t say exactly why. But they did hire a law firm that brags about shaping bargaining units to limit union victories. The slogan in my department is “we empower visitors to make the museum their own” — that should apply to all staff as well.

MI

Can you tell me about your organizing process — why you started and what people’s big issues were?

NC

I was involved in early conversations last summer at happy hours after work. The art museum transparency spreadsheet had just come out, with entries from PMA workers and also other art museum workers across the country. The spreadsheet had information on salaries and benefits; people’s personal testimonials about leaving the field because they couldn’t find a sustainable long-term job; and the ways that lack of transparency around compensation overwhelmingly impacted women and people of color, traditionally underrepresented individuals in the museum field.

I think of last summer as a summer of connections being made. I’m in the curatorial division, so I had been talking to fellows and other junior-level colleagues, and then other conversations were happening in other parts of the museum, and then we kind of all started getting connected to one another on all of these fun blind-type kind of experiences — like, “Hey, we’re thinking about coming together to improve conditions at the museum, is that something you think you’d want to be involved in?” I don’t think we even started using the word “union” at first. And then last August is when momentum really picked up and we decided to move forward with organizing.

Another thing I really appreciated with this process is that we spent a lot of time on our own as organizers and PMA workers. We took our time researching which union to affiliate with. Ultimately, we found the right fit, but I really appreciate that we were working to find our own group dynamic before we hooked up with our district council affiliate, AFSCME DC 47. They are such a good fit for us, and the collaboration has been so productive and democratic. And we were able to maintain our own voice through the process.

NT

My short sad story is that I had gotten hired in a new position in another department, and that’s kind of the dream here — you get your foot in the door in an entry-level job and then you hope people see how hard you work and you get a new, better position.

And that happened, but I ended up having to leave that position for a lot of reasons — it wasn’t very equitable, and it was unhealthy. I went back to my old department. I think a union could have helped me prevent that and stay in my new job.

MI

How did COVID and the pandemic affect the organizing? Did it help, or were people more scared to make waves?

NC

I do legitimately feel that in some ways it helped, but it came at a weird time. In mid-March, we had been heavily into our authorization card signing phase, which we were doing quietly, and we weren’t public yet. Morale at the museum had already been pretty abysmal; tensions were really high between workers and management and leadership. I’m sure they knew we were unhappy, and maybe they had suspicions about a union, but I don’t think they knew we were as far along in our process as we were.

We were collecting cards up until the Friday we closed to the public. We thought at that point we were within a week or two of reaching our goal of a supermajority of cards, and that we would be going public within a few days. But then the shutdown happened. And then everything just stopped for a minute.

We were all so traumatized and afraid; we didn’t know what was going to happen with our museum or the city or the world. It took us another two or three weeks at least before we restarted organizing conversations. And at that point, we weren’t really sure how people were feeling, if people even within our own committee had any change of heart — everything was so uncertain. At that time, the museum was committing to keep us employed through the end of June, which was, of course, the right thing to do.

When we restarted conversations, we very quickly realized everyone was still on board, maybe even more so than before. The realization that none of us had any say in what was happening at the museum recommitted people to our organizing. I do wonder if being remote made people more comfortable being public in their support, since they wouldn’t have any of those awkward water cooler conversations. But it was the only option we had, so we focused on the positives.

NT

When conversations started back up, and we were all remote, it made things easier in a way — which is odd because we were so separated. Within a few weeks of restarting phone calls and checking in with people, we realized that it would be incredibly powerful to show that we were continuing the organizing when we weren’t even in the same place. It showed how much we cared about each other and the museum, even in the pandemic. And like Nicole said, the remote work allowed people to be less hush-hush about it. We could just talk openly about the union.

MI

You just shared how much you care about each other and about the museum itself. But I know the museum hired Morgan Lewis to bust your union. Was that a big surprise, and how did it affect your organizing?

NT

In some ways, it was very confusing. We asked for voluntary recognition, and a few weeks went by without us hearing anything, and all of a sudden, Morgan Lewis was there. They said they wouldn’t recognize us because they wanted us all to have a voice and choice in the union, like recognizing the union would be undemocratic. It was basically like, “We respect your right to organize, but we’re hiring Morgan Lewis.”

We wanted this to work as quickly and as well as possible for everyone. It was an arduous and confusing process, but in the end, it was worthwhile, and we are better off for it.

MI

So many people believe unions are just for people who work in factories or have jobs where you don’t need a college degree. Can you speak a little to that?

NT

Some of my own misconceptions popped when all of this was going on. I have two undergraduate degrees in the arts; I thought I could fit in at the museum and move up quickly. On some level, it was jarring but healthy to realize that the museum is a business, like any other business. Framing it that way helped us approach our own jobs, and also unionizing, in a healthier way.

Organizing is for everyone, and our union is for everyone. We have retail workers, secretaries, finance people at the museum — the same people at every job. We’re not so different.

NC

I have my PhD in art history, which I finished a few years ago. I’ve done a lot of adjuncting and limited-term museum positions. I see a lot of parallels between the adjuncting mill and the machine of highly educated, highly skilled, low-paid workers in museums. Both academia and museums are institutions that play on prestige and that feeling of being lucky to work someplace. There’s this idea that there are dozens of people lined up behind you — if you want to complain about something, we’re very willing to end your contract. You’ve acquired education and skills and expertise and knowledge of the field, while also constantly feeling like you’re expendable. And people collect these advanced degrees and have all of this debt, and they’re stuck in positions where they can’t advance.

The question of professionals or nonprofessionals is interesting, because the museum really pushed hard to divide us over that. The “professionals” had to vote twice, once for union representation and a second time for being in the unit with “nonprofessionals.” Their talking points and Q&A documents were overblowing the division between professionals and nonprofessionals.

This may not be true for every union or every local, but we really feel in the case of the PMA that our work depends so much on collaboration and different types of expertise, and these identifications become illogical. A PhD is a certain kind of expertise, but not the only one. I interpreted a lot of baggage coming out around class issues and wealth disparities between different people and types of jobs within the museum.

NT

As the museum tried to keep emphasizing the difference between professionals and nonprofessionals, the more it brought us together. We feel siloed in our departments, and we all want to feel connected to each other. We want to show how our work relates to each other, because we’re one big museum. It actually brought us together and helped us realize how much we value each other’s work.

MI

On a similar note, what would you say to other art museum workers or other professional workers who wanted more of a voice and more power at work?

NC

When I was growing up, my parents were solidly Democratic, solidly pro-union, but it was always discussed as something you didn’t need anymore once you got an office job. They both came from families that worked very hard to get from a concept of working class to professional class.

So what I would say to anyone in a similar position would be to look around, think about how you feel about where you work, and if there are things you want to improve for yourself or for your coworkers — that’s enough to start thinking about a union. Workers’ rights do not only exist within spaces like factories — there’s a need for workers’ rights in offices and museum galleries, too. Don’t be afraid. You can improve conditions for yourself and others.

NT

My first introduction to unions was through musicals. It’s not that I thought they were a thing of the past, but when I went into the art world, I didn’t know if anything was possible there. And I thought, “This museum has been around for over one hundred years,” and I assumed I would be secure and I would make it. But when you’re not okay, then what happens? You have no safety net underneath you.

Regardless of your job, especially if it’s a white-collar job, as soon as you realize that unions are good for everyone, you’ll be more connected to your colleagues, and you’ll have more of a voice at work. We all deserve that seat at the table.