Workers at the Penn Museum are continuing to negotiate a new contract with museum administration.
Workers at the Penn Museum announced their intent to file for unionization in late May of 2021 with the AFSCME District Council 47 under the Museum and Cultural Workers Local 397. Penn Museum workers voted to unionize in August 2021, and the union has participated in contract negotiations since October 2021, according to Jessica Lubniewski, an academic coordinator in the academic engagement department.
The union — Penn Museum Workers United — is part of the AFSCME District Council 47, which represents various institutions and workers in Philadelphia, including the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Zoo.
Lubniewski previously told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2021 that the Penn Museum engaged in a litany of “union-busting tactics” by sending brochures to workers to vote against unionization or by meeting with workers.
Negotiations began with weekly two hour meetings over Zoom in October 2021, according to Lubniewski — who is one of the four union representatives on the bargaining committee. She said that in early January, the union began all-day in-person sessions, adding that these negotiations have been more productive than they were when on Zoom.
“We came to some tentative agreements on some things that we've been negotiating for a long time,” Lubniewski said.
A Penn Museum spokesperson wrote to the DP that the union regularly meets with administration to address their demands.
“The University of Pennsylvania and the Union meet regularly to discuss bargaining proposals," the spokesperson wrote. "We will continue to work in good faith to address all open items.”
Lu Denegre, a conservation technician at the museum and a member of the union’s negotiating committee, said that recent topics of discussion included the use of contract workers, job security, and temporary employees.
According to Denegre, the union is currently finalizing the last outstanding issues of the negotiated contract's first section, which includes standard language and clauses about worker protections and other matters.
Denegre said the union will probably move onto pay and benefits in the next one or two sessions. They said that the ideal solution is a standardized pay structure for all employees.
According to Lubniewski, workers at the Penn Museum make a lot less than colleagues employed in similar jobs across the University. She said that some library workers "make twice as much as workers in similar jobs in the the museum."
“Our top priority is increasing pay across the board for everyone in our unit," Lubniewski said.
Lubniewski said the union is particularly focused on including equitable pay raises in the contract.
“We want to help bring up the lowest paid people to a more livable wage,” she said.
Lubniewski said that those making the lowest wages were hit especially hard when members of the union were not eligible for Penn's annual raise in July 2022. She added that union members were told that Penn was "saving the money for when our contract goes through” and have not received a raise in almost two years.
In addition to pay raises, Denegre and Lubniewski said job security and longevity of employment are high-priority issues on the table.
“We have a lot of term employees, which are people who work full time, but are on year-to-year contracts,” Lubniewski said. “We want to make sure that people have steady employment and aren't surprised by a lack of employment when a contract is not extended."
The union ultimately hopes that its efforts will improve employee retention. Lubniewski said that she has seen high turnover in recent years due to low pay.
The employees said that representatives from Penn first recommended that negotiations be moved from virtual meetings to in-person, all-day sessions, which both Denegre and Lubniewski saw as a positive sign.
“It was a sign of good faith and showed Penn’s intention that they would like to move forward,” Lubniewski said.
However, Denegre said that Penn has not been fully transparent about the negotiating process with the rest of the museum’s workers.
“When new employees start, they are often not even told that they are part of the union," Denegre said. "Many times supervisors are not able to answer questions about employment because they have not been given that information from their higher-ups."
Denegre added that the unionization efforts across Philadelphia — such as at the Please Touch Museum under the same Local 397 and the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association — have also been inspiring.
“We have a lot of excitement from our staff right now about the union,” Lubniewski said. "A lot of new employees are very excited that there's a union in their workplace and that they get to be part of it."