Women in short black dresses and dapper-dressed men were greeted with hot dogs, Björk and a couple dozen museum workers rallying for a fair contract that includes paid breaks and a $16 minimum wage on Friday night as they crossed Casino Drive to Carnegie Science Center.

The demand “FAIR CONTRACT NOW!” was projected 50 feet high on the side of the round Rangos Giant Cinema as patrons entered the museum, which was hosting “Speakeasy Science” night for attendees 21 and older.

“We’re down to our most core components,” said Jenise Brown, the co-chair of the bargaining committee and educator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “Wages are still on the table.”

Negotiations have dragged on for 18 months and are stuck on securing benefits for part-time workers, who make up a majority of the employees, and a livable wage.

It’s not uncommon for first contract bargaining to take a long time, but it is a management tactic to stretch it out, wearing down the workers who dedicate their own time to bargain and support their colleagues.

“We’re bringing the minimum wage up to $16 an hour,” Brown said. She said they’re also pushing for percentage increases for everyone in the first and second years of the still-yet-final agreement.

Workers said that when negotiations started 18 months ago the minimum pay was just $8.50 an hour.

The “living wage” for a single adult without children in Pittsburgh is $16.05, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The living wage for a single parent with one child is more than double that. A living wage is the hourly rate one must earn working full time to support themselves and their family. 

“Some things haven’t changed since the 1920s,” said Abby Michalowski in a trans-Atlantic accent while donning a black dress and flapper headpiece. 

“Sometimes Carnegie still doesn’t pay his workers,” she said out of the corner of her mouth. 

Abby Michalowski and other workers at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh demonstrate outside Carnegie Science Center on Friday, April 14, 2023, as the center was holding its “Speakeasy Science” night. (Courtesy of Ohad Cadji)

Another important issue, workers said, is securing breaks for gallery associates, who are on their feet for hours on end. 

Workers are asking for an unpaid 30-minute lunch break and two paid 15-minute breaks. 

“They are absolutely refusing to codify that in the contract,” Michalowski said.

“We’ve had reports from gallery associates that say they’ve been told by managers they can’t take bathroom breaks that day because it’s going to be too hard to run them,” she said.

Michalowski said museum management is further refusing seating accommodations and a stipend for orthopedic shoes for workers who have to spend two or three hours continuously on their feet. And they’ve heard reports from workers who have been questioned by managers about the need for leg braces or other medical devices “because they look bad” on the gallery floor. 

“We’ve had a number of people tell us specifically that they’ve had to quit the museum because they have had joint pain or back pain because of the standing rule,” she said.

About 530 workers, called the United Museum Workers, have been bargaining with management at four museums for a year and a half. Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh include Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center and The Andy Warhol Museum. 

Michalowski said that part-time inclusion in the contract has been far and away the largest hangup in negotiations. 

“When we propose something that says something like everyone should be able to park for free and not have to pay for parking, they will say, ‘Is this just for full-time people?’” she said. “And then we have to say that part-time people also have to drive to work.”

“We will not be divided between part time and full time,” Brown added among the “beep beep” of passing cars. 

The workers said they’re fighting against “institutional inertia” because of the old age of the museums and the relative youth of a union-empowered workforce exercising its power.

“Change takes time and especially big change like the change we’re fighting for,” said Jim Kappas, who works in visitor services at the Science Center.

Workers at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh rally outside Carnegie Science Center on Friday, April 14, 2023, demanding a fair contract 18 months after they organized their union. (Jon Schleuss / Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Museum management’s bargaining committee is composed of department heads and lawyers from Littler Mendelson, a law firm known for fighting workers organizing at Starbucks, Apple and other companies.

In response to a request for an interview or comment Saturday morning, a spokesperson for Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh provided the following statement:

“Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh continues to make progress in its negotiations with the United Steelworkers, which includes our recent proposal to USW to increase the minimum hourly wage for all represented staff to $16. We share the goal of reaching a collective bargaining agreement that benefits Carnegie Museums, all our employees, and the communities we serve, and we remain fully committed to bargaining in good faith.”

Guillermo Perez, a USW staff representative working with the bargaining committee, said workers first proposed a $16-an-hour living wage back in August 2022 around the time the workers launched a campaign for a living wage. 

“But we still have another third of the bargaining unit that needs a decent raise,” he said. “And we have some really difficult choices around the fact that we can’t get the Carnegie museums to agree to provide two paid 15 minute breaks for people who work more than seven hours.”

At least two of the members of the bargaining committee said they were previously members of a union as graduate students; who are experiencing a wave of unionization at Yale, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern and others so far just this year. 

That experience and their family background in unions buttressed their support for a union at the museums.

“Pittsburgh is a union town,” Kappas said with a smile shortly before three Pittsburgh police squad cars pulled up.

Someone called 911 and around 8:30 p.m. Pittsburgh police officers reminded workers, who were standing on a portion of the sidewalk along Casino Drive, to not block traffic on the sidewalk and to stay out of the street. Workers continued to grill hot dogs and dance to pop music just a few feet away as cars passed and honked. 

The United Museum Workers union is represented by the United Steelworkers, which has supported the striking workers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Union Progress.

Jon Schleuss is the President of The NewsGuild-CWA, which represents the striking workers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Jon Schleuss

Jon Schleuss is the President of The NewsGuild-CWA, which represents the striking workers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.