With Philly Art Museum walkout, has a new ‘Striketober’ come early to Pa.? | Tuesday Morning Coffee

With unions on the rise, thousands of workers could walk off the job this fall, analysts say

By: - September 27, 2022 7:17 am

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The storied Philadelphia Museum of Art remained open on Monday even as curators, conservators, visitors services workers and other employees hit the picket line in a labor dispute.

The walkout, spurred by stalled contract talks, came less than a month before a Matisse exhibition is scheduled to open, 6ABC in Philadelphia reported on Monday.

“I don’t know who is going to hang the art on the walls. Right? Everyone who installs the paintings – they’re out here today on the lines,” Adam Rizzo, a museum educator and the president of Local 397, which represents roughly 180 museum employees, told the station.

Workers at the iconic Philadelphia landmark (whose equally iconic steps featured in Sylvester Stallone’s 31-mile run in “Rocky II”) have been working without a contract since the union launched two years ago, the station reported.

Workers staged a one-day warning strike earlier this month, according to WHYY-FM.

Led by organizing efforts at Starbucks and Amazon, unions already were resurgent in the post-pandemic economy.

But as The Guardian reports, already familiar picket lines could become even more ubiquitous as a new “Striketober” looms in just a few days’ time, with Philadelphia museum workers providing some small sample of what’s to come.

Tori Tambellini, former Starbucks employee and current organizer with Workers United (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

“Strikes appear to be increasing as we head into the fall,” Johnnie Kallas, the project director for Cornell University’s ILR labor action tracker, told The Guardian.

“These strikes are being led by workers in the service sector. Starbucks workers have organized over 70 strikes so far this year in response to poor working conditions and employer retaliation,” Kallas continued. “Over the past month, thousands of healthcare workers and educators have gone on strike to protest understaffing, low pay and poor conditions for patients and students.”

In Pennsylvania, cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have been focal points for the new organizing push. In the Steel City, emboldened workers have launched unionization efforts in a city with a long history of being friendly to organized labor.

So far, 11 Starbucks stores have unionized in the Pittsburgh area since the first successful Workers United chapter formed in Buffalo last December, according to Pittsburgh City Paper.

Workers have yet to win contracts, and reports from across the country suggest Starbucks is taking a hardline stance in an attempt to shut down the nascent movement, City Paper reported.

Employees, however, remain undaunted.

“[Corporations are] benefiting so much from our hard work,” Shea Gannon, a former Starbucks employee, told City Paper. “And it really feels like we’re being hung out to dry.”

A union rally for workers of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania on July 26, 2022.
A union rally for workers of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania on July 26, 2022 (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

As The Guardian reports, workers aren’t bending under that corporate pushback: Union election petitions increased by 58 percent in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2022, compared with 2021.

And popular support for labor unions is at its highest point since 1965, netting a 71 percent approval rating in the most recent Gallup poll, the newspaper noted.

Strike activity also has increased, according to The Guardian, with 180 strikes involving 78,000 workers in the first six months of 2022, compared with 102 strikes involving 26,500 workers in the first six months of 2021.

The Cornell tracker logged 41 strikes in the one month period between Aug. 15 and Sept. 15, involving 35,250 workers, the newspaper reported.

“We should be making a living wage right now,” one worker, who was among those who voted to authorize a strike at Kroeger grocery stores around Columbus, Ohio, told The Guardian. “They’ve made a ton of money for the higher-ups, they’ve made a ton of money for their shareholders. But once again they’re saying that they can’t afford to pay us the wages that we just need to survive.”

In Philadelphia, museum workers voiced similar dissatisfaction — even as management argued their offers have met industry standards.

“A lot of folks have more than two jobs to get by. Many of us are required to have master’s degrees so we have student loan debt, so this is really about survival for a lot of us,” Rizzo, the union leader, told 6ABC.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.