News

Museum Union Battle Ends in San Francisco

by Jillian Steinhauer on October 5, 2012

Members of SEIU Local 1021 with their inflatable rat, which is outfitted with a special Gaultier bra in honor of the fashion designer’s recent retrospective at the de Young Museum. (courtesy Mark Garrett)

After a year of tense negotiations, a breakdown in negotiations, protests and actions and then more negotiations, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 have settled their dispute! It’s a happy day for art news (see: the temporary reprieve granted to a threatened Frank Lloyd Wright House).

Both the Fine Arts Museums — which is comprised of the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor — and the union announced that 97 percent of members voted to authorize a new contract. That document gives the 94 museum employees in question a 12 to 18 percent pay raise over the next three years, plus an immediate 3 percent pay increase and another 3 percent raise on January 1, 2013. The Fine Arts Museums press release touts it as “one of the most lucrative contract deals in recent city history.”

One of the big issues of contention was the members’ health care coverage: previously, union members had never paid out of their own pockets for it; now they’ve agreed to pay on a sliding scale, which starts at $25 per month for employees, $50 for one dependent, and $75 for families. Those rates will rise in the next three years of the contract.

The entrance to the Legion of Honor museum (image via khoy2006‘s Flickrstream)

From the Fine Arts Museums one senses a whiff of relief that there will be no more disruptions like the one that unfolded at a Friday night event at the de Young a few weeks ago, when protesters blocked the entrance to the museum and 19 people were arrested. Union workers also voted last month to authorize a strike, which would no doubt have been damaging to the museums’ operations, as well as their reputation.

The union sees the settlement at least partly as a testament to the effectiveness of their publicity tactics. In a written statement to Hyperallergic, SEIU Local 1021 representative Mark Garrett emphasized the bargaining victories:

Management backed away from a proposal to permanently freeze the salaries of new hires and create an awkwardly tiered pay scale based upon a conservative study by The Hay Group, and for which they refused to provide actual details of that study for negotiations.

But Ken Garcia, director of communications and government relations for the Fine Arts Museums, speculates that not all union members were thrilled with the way their leaders handled things. “It was always clear to us that the vast majority of the union’s members wanted to settle the contract and were uncomfortable with a lot of the boisterous, headline-seeking antics of SEIU’s organizers,” he told Hyperallergic. “The final vote obviously reflects that. But we’re all happy that it’s finally behind us.”

Despite the relief on both sides, Garrett pointed out once again the increased “tone of surveillance” at the museums. He was troubled especially by a new thumbprint-scanning time-clock system that’s being rolled out, which he sees as “an apparent move to nickel and dime the lowest paid workers who until now have always been entrusted to keep an honest accounting of their time” and “another layer of aggressive bullying by management.”

Writing about the new system, he concluded, “it seems particularly ill timed given the welcome and otherwise celebratory resolution of this contract dispute.” True enough, but we’re glad the workers at least don’t have to worry about their jobs anymore.

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