Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted on Thursday to unionize, in a move that has led to the formation of one of the biggest labor groups of its kind at an American art institution. The vote occurred just two days after the museum announced a major round of layoffs, cutting its staff by 85 employees, or roughly 23 percent of its workforce.
According to a release put out by the union, 89 percent of voters selected the option that would lead to unionization. The union will be a part of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 47.
“The election follows a year of organizing by the museum staff while surmounting the major obstacles of the pandemic shutdown and museum leadership’s attempts to discourage unionization,” the union’s statement said.
Timothy Rub, the museum’s director and CEO, said in a statement, “Just as we respected the right of staff to organize at the outset of this process, we also respect today’s outcome. As we move towards the development of a collective bargaining agreement, we pledge to work in good faith to achieve the best outcome for our staff and for this institution.”
The vote to unionize comes as the Philadelphia Museum of Art experiences a period of turmoil resulting from allegations of mismanagement, harassment, and discrimination, as well as from the financial impact wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Workers in the union had called on the museum to tighten its guidelines for worker safety and offer greater transparency.
Workers at the museum began the process of unionization in May of this year. In June, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the museum had brought on the firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which on its website says that it helps clients “avoid union penetration.” At the time, a museum spokesperson said that working with outside counsel was “customary” during the unionization process.
For much of this year, Philadelphia Museum leadership has faced controversy for the way it has dealt with workers in the face of multiple scandals. In January, the New York Times reported that Joshua Helmer, who formerly served as a manager at the museum, had solicited dates from female employees in exchange for professional advancement. At the time, the museum said that it aimed to be “free from harassment or inappropriate behavior of any kind” and vowed to investigate its workplace culture.
The findings of an investigation by an outside consulting firm were reported in July by the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to the article, two male managers were accused of abuse (neither are reportedly still employed by the museum), as well as allegations that institutional leadership had not done enough to combat discrimination.
Like some other major U.S. institutions, the Philadelphia Museum of Art also faced controversy for its response to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. In a letter to its staff, Rub and museum president Gail Harrity used the phrase “every individual life matters,” triggering a missive from five Black employees that accused leadership of a “lack of compassion and empathy.” Rub subsequently apologized to the workers.
The latest move by the Philadelphia Museum workers is a sign that the push toward unionization is still ongoing at major U.S. museums. Other institutions in the country to have unionized over the past few years include the New Museum and the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.