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Philadelphia art museum announces tentative agreement with its striking workers

The museum's board of trustees approved a proposed agreement Friday morning and has given it to the union. The union will vote on the package Sunday.

Camila Rondon (from left), Swagato Chakravorty, Laurel Garber, Holly Chen, and Monique D’Almeida are among museum workers celebrating the agreement.
Camila Rondon (from left), Swagato Chakravorty, Laurel Garber, Holly Chen, and Monique D’Almeida are among museum workers celebrating the agreement.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

After two years of negotiations, a strike of 19 days, picket lines, social media jibes, and allegations of scab labor usage, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its 180 unionized workers reached a tentative three-year contract agreement Friday morning, said museum director Sasha Suda and union leaders.

“I feel good about the terms,” said Adam Rizzo, president of the PMA Union, an affiliate of AFSCME DC47. “They met everything that we asked for.”

Union leaders said the bulk of the contract — the two sides were in disagreement largely over wages and health care benefits — was approved by Thursday evening by both sides, and the museum agreed to the last points Friday morning.

Suda said the board of trustees “welcomed [the agreement] as the next step” for the museum and its staff, and voted in favor of it Friday morning. They then passed the plan along to the PMA Union for action.

“What we’re really excited about is it ended up being a partnership between the museum, the city, and the union to start looking forward,” Suda said.

The picket lines were coming down Friday afternoon. The unionized museum staff is expected to return to work Monday.

City officials had worked behind the scenes to keep the two sides talking.

Rizzo said the union executive committee had approved the terms of the tentative agreement on Friday afternoon and the whole package would go to membership for a vote on Sunday afternoon.

Suda, who arrived on the job the first day of the walkout, Sept. 26, said all five areas of the union’s concerns were addressed.

Leslie Anne Miller, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said in an interview that while it seemed the negotiations took a long time, “both the union and the museum had their points of view and it took time to work through them. But the bottom line is not that it took so long but that we got it done, and that we find ourselves here today in a very important point in the museum’s history, having done right by the union, the museum — and that includes all of our employees, not just the union employees — and the city of Philadelphia. So, I think that is what needs to be emphasized, not the fact that it took us a while.”

» READ MORE: After a long strike, art museum director Sasha Suda talks about hope, healing, and getting to know Philly

Suda, who was not publicly involved in the bargaining, said it was important for her to get a “sense of what dynamics were at play and how I could best contribute getting” to a successful contract resolution.

“And I think we did what it took to get where we are today,” she said in an interview. “I would say that we did it as a team. So I feel that my involvement is in the last home stretch. This has been going on for over two years. And I’m really happy where we landed and proud to have seen everybody working together to get here.”

According to union leaders, the museum agreed to salary increases retroactive to July and 14% raises over three years going forward. The minimum hourly wage will increase from $15 to $16.75. Workers also won four weeks of paid parental leave and a lowered cost for health-care benefits.

In addition, workers won a “longevity” increase of $500 for every five years of employment.

The employees, who unionized in the summer of 2020, began the strike on Sept. 26. A federal mediator has been working with both sides since the onset of negotiations in October 2020.

“The museum caved on every single issue that we were fighting for,” said Rizzo. “We won everything we asked for.”

“It means two things,” said Amanda Bock, a curator who has been on the picket line since Day One. “On the immediate horizon, it means the most significant raises that I’ve ever seen in this institution are headed to 190 employees and that’s a huge shift and a sorely needed point of relief for people who have not had raises in three years.”

She also cited the reduced health-care costs as a critical part of the contract.

“But the other thing, I think, that’s bigger than that is that this is really a historic moment for a museum of this size,” Bock said. “There have been other strikes of this duration in institutions where there are segmented workforces.”

The union at the PMA includes workers from virtually all departments. She said that the PMA strike was possibly “the first prolonged strike in an institution” where there is such “a wall to wall unit.”

Bock said strikers were looking forward to returning to work on Monday.

“The people who are on strike, we have a bond that is stronger than any relationship I’ve ever felt with a colleague and that I think will have an enormous positive impact on our work together when we go back into the museum,” Bock said. “In terms of relationship with management, they’re managers for a reason and this is their ship to steer. I think we are all going back to work … with the same love of our work that we left with.

“How that unfolds inside is something that I’m hoping managers have carefully considered during our time here and [is something they will] approach with care, empathy, and thoughtfulness.”

The museum will open its major Matisse exhibit Oct. 20 and preview events will be held Saturday through Monday with a gala gathering Saturday night.