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What Does PMA's Victory Means for the Rest of Us?

Joe Piette - https://www.flickr.com/photos/1097

Unless you buried your phone, you're likely aware that for 19 days this fall staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were on strike. Two years ago PMA workers unionized. What followed wasn't workplace Nirvana, but rather protracted negotiations between their union and PMA leadership. Around the beginning of October when negotiations stalled, museum workers walked out.

From the sidewalks the striking workers watched, wondered and worried as PMA hung its Matisse show, while waiting for Sasha Suda, PMA's new director, to acknowledge what was going on. Other museums and museum staff used social media to advocate for a sector-wide shunning of the Museum until the strike was settled, which it eventually was. Here are some of the Union's contractual victories: cheaper healthcare; a month of paid parental leave (Previously, it was nothing); additional bereavement leave; a pay equity committee; limits on the Museum's use of temporary staff and subcontractors.

It's a David and Goliath story, and even without knowing much about museumland politics, it's hard not to root for the underdog. But what about everyone else? What does PMA's Union victory mean for the other 34,999 museums and heritage sites in the country, not to mention their 160,700 employees? In the long run, does a union victory in Philadelphia matter to the rest of us? Well, it should. The optimistic part of me hopes that slowly, very slowly, museum organizations, museum boards and leadership are waking up to the resource their staffs represent. While cynical board members may not care their organization's staff are smart and dedicated, they surely understand that constant staff churn represents a ginormous investment as remaining staff cover positions while the organization advertises, interviews, hires and onboards, again.

And while this might be too Pollyanna of me, does the PMA settlement demonstrate museum staff have a voice, that their absence from work is meaningful, and negotiation is possible? Hopefully, yes. Here are seven other reasons why PMA's union victory might be meaningful for museums and their leaders everywhere.

  1. If you didn't know already, staff matter. I say that here often because it's true. Our sites, whether they are about creative expression, heritage and culture or exploration and discovery are NOTHING without their staffs. Staff care, and museum leadership needs to care back. Whether it's helping visitors find their way around a complex site, collaborating with communities to deepen understanding, hanging pieces correctly or making sure visitors and objects are safe, museum staff make it happen. Imagine Wilkening Consulting's "Museum-Goers When Asked to Imagine No Museums" if instead it read, "Museum Boards When Asked to Imagine No Museum Staff...."

  2. Museums are workplaces not just community containers of beauty, history or science. Over the last quarter century, museums have neglected their workplaces, acting as though talking about staff, leadership and money was somehow in bad taste. From a failure to value leadership, failures to talk about leadership and the workplace, museums and museum organizations have acted as if their loftier goals meant museum magic had to happen regardless of poor pay, a gender pay gap, racial and class bias, workplace bullying, the ongoing imprint of patrimony, and on and on. Why do museum board members accept bad behavior on the part of leadership that they wouldn't tolerate in the for-profit world?

  3. Scarcity: Striking is a huge risk. People don't do it for fun. "We can't" and "we don't" are not phrases that move conversation between workers and museum leadership forward. They aren't "Yes, and."Whether your endowment is in the millions or barely anything at all, staff need leadership to be transparent. What would have happened if PMA's leadership had acknowledged its HR issues from the get-go, beginning conversations with "There's a problem, let's fix it, acknowledging the need for dependable healthcare, the loss of loved ones, or the addition of a new human being in a family are moments PMA should provide for and support? Compromise is best begun from a positive place. If you, your board and leadership believe staff matters you will find a way to shake off scarcity's shackles. Everyone wants a happy, engaged staff, but if the barista across the street from the museum makes more per hour than your front-line staff, can you blame them if they don't want to stay?

  4. Staff--all staff--need to feel safe, seen and supported which is why your HR Policy matters: Do you differentiate between your staff--the full time, degreed folks--and the "workers"--the part-time, hourly folks? When was the last time you looked at your HR policy? When was it written? Is it time for an update? Is it easily accessible? Does everyone, from your housekeepers to leadership, know how to find it?

  5. Equity matters: What if the salary genie descended tomorrow and enabled you to raise everyone's pay? Would you do it? Would you have equitable salaries? Maybe, but maybe not. You might be perpetuating a system that for generations paid women and people of color less. Don't take blame, take action: do an equity audit so you know for sure.

  6. Grow up: There's a lot about adulting that's ridiculously annoying: taxes, bills, being responsible, but like individuals, organizations need to grow up as well. PMA staff couldn't grieve, and apparently, unless they had outside income, weren't supposed to have children. Hiding behind the but-we're-a-non-profit myth or that's-the-way-it's-always-been, doesn't help anyone, least of all staff. Surviving in the museum world shouldn't be a form of hazing--I suffered, therefore the next generation should suffer. Adult organizations recognize they're hiring people, people with lives, loved ones and families. Their boards need to do the work so that staff can be their best selves.

  7. Directors aren't just leadership's boss: Museum directors or presidents are responsible for the entire staff, not just the leadership team. Your leadership team may be the folks you see frequently, but if harassment happens, if 40-percent of your front-line staff has to get second jobs to make ends meet, you should know. And hopefully work to make change. What would have happened if Sasha Suda had started her first week by greeting the strikers? What would that have looked like?

I've been writing this blog for a decade, and railing, whining, and preaching for Museumland to take staff as seriously as it takes its audience. And yet, here we are 10 years later, and the needle hasn't moved much. Workplace Bullying is still one of my most popular posts. What does that tell you besides the field is littered with leaders who equate power with being mean? And yet, our field is full of talented, smart people. How hard is it to treasure them? What is the living wage in your region, town, city? Does your board know what percentage of your organization's positions fall below the living wage? In September I participated in an AASLH panel titled Approaching the Museum Worker Crisis through Systems Thinking. We used the hashtag #workingonmuseumwork. Forget the hash tag. Twitter may be on the respirator by then, but what if we--and by we I mean museum service organizations, museum leaders and museum staff--dedicate 2023 to museum workers? What could the museum world look like then?

Be well. Be kind. See you in December.

Joan Baldwin

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