During PMA Strike, Jewish Union Members Helped Lead Charge

In front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's north entrance, a large sign reads "FAIR CONTRACT NOW."
PMA Union striking workers marched with picket signs outside of the museum’s two entrances for 19 days. | Photo by Sasha Rogelberg

During the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s press preview of its Matisse in the 1930s exhibit the week of Oct. 10, the chants of workers were clear, even amid the din of honking horns and the rhythmic beat of drums and tambourines: “No contract, no peace! No contract, no Matisse!”

For 19 days, striking workers holding picket signs marched outside the museum’s two entrances. Though the union is composed of almost 200 members — of the museum’s 350 staff members — Jewish members make up a vocal and passionate contingent.

Members of PMA’s union, an affiliate of AFSCME DC47, had negotiated with museum management for two years, since the union’s inception in 2020. 

On Sept. 26, the union called for a strike after a one-day “warning” strike on Sept. 16. On Oct. 16, the museum union and management reached an agreement and ratified a contract to give workers a 14% increase in wages over three years, retroactively from July; an increased minimum wage from $15 to $16.75; “longevity pay” to reflect years of service to the museum; and cheaper health care options, according to the PMA union Twitter. The strike is suspended.

“We believe that this agreement and our investment in people across the organization is the right thing to do, works for everyone and establishes a way forward for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s future, the foundation of which is its staff,” said PMA Director and CEO Sasha Suda in an Oct. 14 PMA press release.

For some Jewish PMA union members, their identity as organizers, workers and striking members is inextricable from their Jewish identities.

“I feel the most connected to my Judaism when I’m in my community, and I see the union at work as my community at work,” member Elizabeth Marlowe said.

Other Jewish union members connected their values of justice and tikkun olam with their strike participation.

“It always felt like a Jewish value to put your values into action, so unionizing is a way to do that,” member Emma Perloff said.

Perloff sees similarities between labor organizing and the Jewish practice of “communal care.”

“We have it literally built into our religion with things like shiva, that the community shows up for each other, and that’s what unionizing feels like to me,” she said.

Many of those involved in labor organizing in the Philadelphia Jewish community come from a lineage of labor organizing, which further entrenches union work in their Jewish identities.

“My great-grandmother was part of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and, to me, connecting to my Judaism also happens when I connect to my ancestry,” Perloff said. “Striking feels like a way to connect to my ancestors and, therefore, my Judaism.”

Zoe Cohen, a higher education union organizer with United Academics of Philadelphia, who worked at the PMA for several years, believes that Jewish people were the backbone of many labor unionizing efforts in the last century.

“Part of why Jews were so much a part of the labor organizing landscape in the early 20th century was because the workplaces that needed representation and protections the most were the workplaces where Jews were working,” Cohen said.

These industries included factories and mills. The ILGWU, which gained publicity following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, was made up of mostly women and immigrant workers, such as Perloff’s great-grandmother. Many Jewish members had familiarity with labor organizing because of their experiences with Bundist practices in Eastern Europe.

In 1934, Jewish members of the large New York unions formed the Jewish Labor Committee, which, during World War II, helped raise money for Eastern European partisan forces and convinced American Federation of Labor President William Green to arrange for temporary emergency visas for thousands of German people fighting Nazism, according to Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee board member Sylvia Lieberman.

As industries evolved and some Jews gained wealth, Lieberman fears that Jewish union involvement has waned. But Cohen believes that, if this is true, that might not be such a bad thing.

“People of color are predominantly the demographic in the city that need protection, that need better pay,” Cohen said. “The vast majority of low-wage workers in the city are Black and brown people.”

Though she believes that union leadership should reflect the majority of its membership, Jews, particularly white Jews, are still obligated to show up and show support, Cohen said.

“The strength of the unions that I have worked with and that I have been in solidarity with is that everyone is fighting for each other,” she said. “That is the definition of solidarity.”

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