Striking workers picket outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art while it hosts a press preview of an upcoming Matisse exhibit. The union reached a temporary agreement with management two days later. Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Workers in the U.S. are facing two potential futures.

In one direction, there’s movement toward better working conditions and finally seeing wages catch up to the cost of living. In the other, inflation continues to outpace income — even if people recently fought for higher pay and won.

Unionization efforts and collective bargaining, like what’s currently taking place at several local institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are a major factor in deciding which way it will go.

Average wages in the U.S. have been stagnant for years, while the cost of living has grown and worker productivity has fueled increasing corporate profits. “Quiet fleecing” is the term the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, recently came up with to describe the situation. It’s a play on the more-viral term “quiet quitting” — the idea that workers do what’s required of them to keep their job and nothing more.

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Quiet quitting caught hold in the wake of the pandemic and the so-called “Great Resignation,” where it seemed a good part of the labor force was taking a stand against employers. Many actually left for new jobs that offered better pay, conditions, or both.

This trend disproportionately benefited college-educated workers, which describes fewer than 1 in 3 Philadelphians.

Even among people who have college educations, some have found their jobs simply weren’t paying enough, especially given their requirements.

“I have an insane amount of student loan debt from all the degrees that are required,” said Adam Rizzo, a teacher at PMA and president of the PMA union. “I can’t afford to pay my bills, I can’t afford to buy a house in Philadelphia.”

Art Museum workers voted in 2020 to unionize, joining the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). They’ve been in contract negotiations since then, stuck on salary and benefits. The local chapter went on strike Sept. 26, and stayed off the job for over two weeks, making it the longest strike by U.S. museum workers in recent history. A tentative agreement was announced Friday, just one day before a gala to celebrate a major exhibition opening.

“I never thought we’d be out this long,” Rizzo told Billy Penn on Thursday, a day before the agreement. “I think it’s making a really huge impact.”

Rizzo said his chapter received support from unions in the service industry, some of which have also been drawing a spotlight to Philadelphia this year.

“What I’m hearing from everyone in all sectors is safety in the workplace, a living wage, affordable healthcare and job protection,” Rizzo said. “Those are things that I think are relevant to everyone, regardless of how much education you have or how specialized your work is.”

Stephen Herzenberg, an economist at the Keystone Research Center, said unions in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have been making notable progress, and could help “light the fuse” in smaller cities across the state — and perhaps the country.

“Workers organize when they’re pissed, and when they can change it,” Herzenberg said. “They’ve been pissed off for a long time, and treated with little dignity for a long time.”

Are you getting fleeced? Most workers feel they’re falling behind

In recent years, any growth in wages has been outpaced by growth in worker productivity. Instead, that productivity has been funneled into greater corporate profits and ballooning executive salaries, according to data from EPI.

This isn’t helped by “hustle culture” mentality, which says workers must go above and beyond listed duties to get ahead. Some say this mentality is especially exploited in professions that carry a level of prestige or tend to attract people passionate about the work — art museums, for example.

“It’s just so hard to get your foot in the door at these institutions and you’re expected to take unpaid internships, and basically take whatever they give you,” said Rizzo, the PMA union president. “There’s this unspoken rule that you work more than you’re [officially] expected to, without that extra compensation.”

Financial stresses for fleeced workers have grown. Inflation-adjusted average earnings in the U.S. fell 2.8% from August 2021 to August 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even workers who’ve won hard-fought pay increases in recent years feel like they’re falling behind.

At South Philly’s Korshak Bagels, workers unionized in 2021 and won a contract earlier this year with raises of up to $3.50 per hour. Eli Zastempowski, an organizer for Local 80 and bagelmonger at Korshak, got a raise of $2.50/hour under the contract, back in May.

“I still felt the sting” of inflation, Zastempowski said. “I had just gotten a raise to make more money than I ever had and I still felt like I couldn’t afford groceries and rent.”

Korshak Bagels at 10th and Morris streets in South Philadelphia

Recent organizing efforts are working against a decades-long trend of employers underpaying workers. One contract cycle alone can’t solve that.

“While we do have a union culture [in Philly], and I think it’s coming back, I don’t think it affects the lowest wage workers,” said Rosemary Barbera, a community organizing expert at La Salle University. The unions with the longest history in Philadelphia, the building trades, are also disproportionately white and male.

Still, some exceptions are bubbling up, Barbera noted, and unions could bring about major change if they continue the momentum.

More coffee shops in Philadelphia are unionizing, including the shops that joined Local 80, and several Starbucks locations that are part of a broader national effort through Workers United. Workers at a Home Depot in Northeast Philly filed unionization paperwork last month, to form what would be the biggest collective bargaining unit at the global chain store.

Outside Philadelphia, the Amazon Labor Union, born in Staten Island, NY, and Trader Joe’s United, which now has bases in Massachusetts and Minnesota, have made key wins in the past few months.

43% of Philly families struggle to be ‘self-sufficient’

Labor experts point out that despite recent wins, union membership remains low — last year’s participation rate among full-time U.S. workers was 11% — and it will take more to address broad-based pay inadequacy.

Electing worker-friendly policymakers who will push for a higher minimum wage is pivotal to any change, experts say.

Philadelphians voted to approve a $15/hour minimum wage in 2019, but the referendum was largely symbolic because state law prohibits the city from raising its overall wage floor.

Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf has called for a statewide increase, but his proposals have been ignored by the Republican-controlled state legislature. Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano, gubernatorial candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot, have opposing views on the topic. Shapiro has said minimum wage must increase to at least $15/hour. Mastriano, in 2019, voted against raising it to $9.50.

Discussions around wages, whether among employers or policymakers, have been warped by an outdated definition of poverty, said La Salle’s Barbera.

Nearly 1 in 5 Philadelphians were living in poverty as of 2021, according to Census Bureau data. And that’s just one measure of economic hardship.

Another is the self-sufficiency standard, a measure developed by economic inequality expert Diana Pearce now used in 37 states. It shows the amount of income needed in a particular geographic location to meet a family’s basic needs — including housing, food and childcare.

In Philadelphia, 43% of families live below the self-sufficiency standard, according to nonprofit Pathways PA, which worked with Pearce to calculate the number in each of the commonwealth’s counties.

The most recent self-sufficiency standard for a family of one adult and one young child in Philadelphia was about $23/hour, about $48k annually. That was in 2019. Since then, costs have grown thanks to the pandemic and inflation.

Worker wages can catch up to a liveable standard, said Herzenberg, of the Keystone Research Center. But it will require a combination of continued worker organizing and advancement of worker-friendly policies.

The fate of the latter rests in part on the upcoming midterm elections, he said. Republicans could take control of Congress and halt spending that assists low-wage earners. That would also quash any movement to increase the federal minimum wage.

But the other element — organizing — lies in the hands of workers.

“We are at a fork in the road,” Herzenberg said. “Philadelphia’s union movement has a legacy that it has a chance to renew.”