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Inside the Eastern State Penitentiary Union Drive

These museum workers teach visitors about dignity—they want the same from their workplace.

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Produced and narrated by Kim Kelly

Diana Mousetis: Is Eastern State Penitentiary haunted? I don’t know. I think if I ever saw ghosts there I would probably quit.

Eastern State Penitentiary Staff Votes to Unionize

Narrator: Eastern State Penitentiary is both a historic landmark and a popular tourist attraction. 

Annie Finnegan: It is a strange place to work. Sometimes we get a lot of people asking like, Oh, is it haunted? Oh, where are the ghosts? Where’s Al Capone? While his cell is here he is not. 

Narrator: Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is no ordinary prison. It opened in 1829 and is considered to be the world’s first penitentiary. The prison itself remained an operation until 1970. After that, it fell into ruin. Nature took over and the site was largely ignored by the city until 1994 When it was reopened as a historical exhibit.

One of its most famous former residents include Chicago mafia kingpin Al Capone, whose cushy sell with his fine wooden furniture and artwork has been recreated as a current exhibit. In addition, the prison’s towering ceilings, crumbling walls, long, desolate hallways and unsettling atmosphere has helped to make it one of the scariest Halloween attractions in the country.

Each year, Halloween nights at Eastern State Penitentiary, formerly known as terror behind the walls, draws thousands of visitors and brings in a large seasonal workforce to keep the screams coming.

In 2017, Eastern State announced this new mission to educate the public on criminal justice reform and the evils of mass incarceration.

Diana Mousetis: Eastern State Penitentiary historic sites mission is that we want to address the issues of mass incarceration by utilizing the history of the prison right here. And that is a way that we can learn from the past and also try to help our future because mass incarceration is just not working.

Justin Murter: This place gives us a chance to educate the public just about modern day prisons, and a lot of the injustice is in the world.

Narrator: But working there year round brings a host of unique challenges and safety concerns from unruly visitors to Mother Nature herself. And the workers want to see some changes.

Annie Finnegan: Unlike typical museums, we do spend a lot of time outdoors. And so to our guests. 

Diana Mousetis: One of the biggest challenges for working here is the weather. Obviously, a lot of the site is outside, so it’s really hard to keep things temperature controlled. So it gets super hot in the summer and super cold in the winter. 

Narrator: On December 20 2022, workers at the prison who handled tours, education, visitor services and more went public with a new mission of their own to unionize with the United Steelworkers. 

Annie Finnegan: The reason why we wanted to start unionizing—there are a lot of reasons—but for me personally, a lot of it is about safety for the entire team. A lot of the pavement can be uneven. So you know, we want to make sure that we’re not running into trip hazards, our guests aren’t running into that.

Justin Murter: Harsh weather is made worse by the fact that it’s a preserved ruin. 

Diana Mousetis: The summer was really hard on us. So we’re really hoping that with a union, we can make sure that in the coming summers, they’re only going to keep getting hotter. So it’s going to be really nice to make sure that we’re as safe as possible. 

Justin Murter: We want more transparent policies for how shifts are distributed. We need protections against discrimination. 

Annie Finnegan: I’m hoping to get more consistency and transparency from management. I just want us all to be on the same consistent page. And I want us all to know what is on that page. The Steel Workers Union might not seem like an immediate fit for museum workers, but they’re really excited to be working with them.

Diana Mousetis: We wanted to organize with the steel workers because they were just very responsive to us. I just feel very well protected with the steel workers behind us as well. 

Narrator: The workers went public in December and the ballot for their union election were mailed out on January 27. The votes will be counted on March 1. The workers are hoping for a win. But management has been less than thrilled about the union drive, a stance that directly opposes the museum’s stated mission of dignity and respect for all

Justin Murter: We are just concerned with you know, human rights. And I feel like you know, it should start with our employees at the site. If we’re going to talk to the public about the rights we deserve, we should have those rights. 

Diana Mousetis: I’m hoping that with our union, we can all come together management and the union and figure this out all together. And it’s really helping us to honestly care about our job even more and really helping us make a good future for other employees who will be here after us as well.

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