SF Art Workers Agree to Strike
August 9, 2012 8:38 am
By: Yvonne Lee
After nearly a year of tense negoitations, SEIU Local 1021 voted almost unanimously last week to strike if talks between union negotiators and the private nonprofit Corporation of Fine Arts Museums — which manages San Francisco’s Palace of Legion of Honor and de Young museums — fall through. The union represents over 100 employees at the two cultural institutions and is disputing contract negotiations that would reduce wages for future hires and raise health care costs for union workers. These efforts to cut costs for the museums come after workers allege the museums have seen a $19.6 million increase in profits over the last two years.
The major points of the negotiations dispute are: a two-tier wage system that would pay new employees a lot less — in effect creating two classes of workers — and the adoption of a more expensive health care plan with higher premiums. The union charges COFAM with taking deliberate action to push costs onto workers while making it easier for management to hire cheaper, non-union labor in the future (basically, union busting).
While the de Young and Legion of Honor museums and most of their collections are owned by the City of San Francisco, COFAM handles fundraising, membership, museum stores, art handling and other administrative duties. Subsequently, COFAM negotiates contracts for employees of the two museums.
In the words of Mark Garrett, a union employee at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, SEIU Local 1021 was “quite a sleepy little union chapter.” SEIU Local 1021 is made up of over 54,000 employees across Northern California, of which 115 work at the two museums as art handlers, front desk staff and membership representatives. Cristal Java, a chief negotiator with the union, noted that “museum workers . . . typically don’t get in labor disputes. They like to have conversations, they’re artists.” However, after 11 months of failing to reach an agreement to address cost-cutting measures by COFAM, they have become decidedly more active in fighting for workers’ rights.
The already contentious negotiations were further exacerbated in November when COFAM hired lawyers from Hanson Bridgett LLP — a firm that “has a documented history of advising clients on how to remain ‘union-free’” and “[has] been hired to obstruct the right to engage in productive contract negotiations,” according to Tim Paulson, Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council.
This dispute has spilled over into local news outlets like the San Francisco Examiner, SF Gate and NBC San Francisco, with both sides airing their perspectives in the court of public opinion. In June, City Supervisor Eric Mar took a stance with museum workers in an Op-Ed in the Examiner. Michele Gutierrez-Canepa, the chief administrator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, quickly penned a response, saying, “his arguments concerning the state of workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1021 were lost amid a pile of misinformation and inaccuracy” and “[i]f museum workers whom Mar allegedly spoke with are frustrated about the stalled negotiations, they have only their union leaders to blame.” Wow.
In a statement indicative of management’s cynicism and belief that union members are selfish and only interested in their own jobs, museum spokesman Ken Garcia said to NBC San Francisco, “We think it’s fairly remarkable that this union, or for that matter, any union, would choose to walk away from a double-digit pay raise offer in these harsh and difficult economic times.”
In a letter to Gutierrez-Canepa, Tim Paulson distilled the issue to its basic points:
“Why should employees get affordable healthcare when we can charge them more? Why are people upset with a wage freeze and pay cuts when there are others willing to work for much less?
Because contract talks are supposed to allow workers to negotiate their talent, skills and labor in exchange for decent wages and affordable healthcare.”
The de Young and Legion of Honor are highly prized cultural institutions. According to its website, the de Young is the fourth most visited museum in the United States. And yet these community spaces consider their workers to be incidental and often times pesky due to demands for decent living wages doing skilled work.
Although the union authorized a strike, there has been no date set at this time. As of this Monday, SEIU Local 1021 said no new negotiations are scheduled.
Image from here