Museum movements: 2,000 protest in Philly; Baltimore votes to unionize
AFSCME via Twitter

PHILADELPHIA and BALTIMORE —Museum unionization actions accelerated in mid-July in two big East Coast cities, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

And both campaigns are part of AFSCME’s increasing drive to organize workers at museums and similar arts institutions from coast to coast.

In Philadelphia, more than 2,000 delegates to the union’s convention, clad in their trademark green shirts, gathered July 13 on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to show solidarity with their colleagues’ contract struggle with the board of trustees.

It was the second, and larger, such mass rally supporting the PMA workers in a month. The first occurred in June when the AFL-CIO held its convention, as AFSCME did the week of July 11-15, in Philadelphia.

Just down Interstate 95, workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art voted 89-29 on July 14 to unionize with AFSCME, following a six-month organizing drive there.

“Huge thanks to our partners in this fight!” the BMA union tweeted, singling out top city elected officials, including the mayor. “You were tireless champions of our BMA union & made this victory possible. We’re proud to join all of you & workers across our incredible city in saying Baltimore is a union town!”

They had a second tweeted message for the city’s other big art museum downtown: “Hey, Walters! You’re next!”

Wages, benefits, and, most importantly, a voice on the job were key motivators in both cities. Two years ago, 89.5% of the Philly workers voted to unionize, but the trustees refused. Instead, they hired a union-buster and cut off health care.

Workers have had to scramble to keep roofs over their heads and food on the table. The mass rally at the museum’s front doors and on its impressive staircase was designed to send a message they have the entire union—and the labor movement—behind their struggle.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, who addressed the convention before the rally, made that point in speaking to the crowd on the stairs.

“When I looked across those famous Rocky Steps, I saw the whole story of where we are as a movement,” Shuler said. “We are not only organizing in new places like museums and cultural institutions, but we’re also leveraging the power of our entire federation–our internationals, our locals, our state federations, and our local labor bodies–to do it.”

“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,” the PMA union said in a statement.

“We’re here to let Philadelphia Museum of Art workers know they are not alone,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders told the crowd, which filled the giant steps and overflowed into the boulevard and park below. “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.”

“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,” AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride added.

PMA Local President Adam Rizzo reminded the crowd the museum bosses laid off 127 workers during the coronavirus pandemic even though it sought and received $11 million in federal pandemic aid specifically earmarked by Congress to keep workers on the job. The museum has yet to fully reopen.

“I have a message for Board Chair Leslie Anne Miller and COO Bill Petersen,” said Rizzo, according to AFSCME’s release. “Your union-busting behavior over the past two years has made it abundantly clear 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.”

The July 14 vote among workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art culminates an organizing drive officially unveiled last year. Then, the workers, also organized by AFSCME, told bosses they had a signed majority of National Labor Relations Board union election authorization cards. They asked for voluntary, i.e., card check recognition. Bosses refused.

Working conditions are a key issue for the Baltimore workers, tweets showed. “As frontline staff, the pandemic showed how important it is to have a seat at the table + a role in negotiating our conditions at work. It is imperative 4 us to have a health+safety committee to feel safe, protected at work,” tweeted visitor services worker Selina Doroshenko.

“Our contract is a place where we can set our priorities and win policies that will improve our workplace. Our dues will support this contract and its enforcement, and all of us will have a democratic say in what our contract looks like,” worker Leila Grothe tweeted to #bmaunion.

“As staff, we are proud to carry out our mission of serving the Baltimore public and providing ‘artistic excellence and social equity’ in all facets of our work,” BMA Union said in its mission statement. “We are channeling this passion and energy to form a union, which will help build a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable institution and change the long-standing cultural canon of privilege at our museum.”

The union’s aims include, but were not limited to, job security, fair and living wages, staff advancement for all, a seat at the table, manageable workloads, and management and administration accountability.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.