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)

Sotheby’s and its art handlers may have resolved their 10-month contract dispute earlier this year, but the labor fight is alive and well in the art world, and its current locus is San Francisco.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which encompasses both the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, are currently engaged in a dispute with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 over the contract of a group of 94 museum employees. The struggle has actually been going on for roughly a year already, but it has received little coverage.

That changed last week, when SEIU staged an action at the de Young Museum’s Friday Nights at the de Young event. Around 7 pm, more than 100 protesters — museum workers as well as other community members and supporters — entered the museum and blocked the entrance. Nineteen of them were arrested. KTVU offers this priceless image:

The members of the Service Employees International Union shouted with bullhorns as patrons sipped drinks and watched.

Hyperallergic spoke with Mark Garrett, a member of SEIU Local 1012 and a matter and framer who’s work for the Fine Arts Museums for the last 23 years. “I think it shocked a lot of people within the museum but also citywide,” he said of last Friday’s protest. “It was the intended effort on our part to get people’s attention.”

Union members and allies barricade the entrance to the de Young (image via SEIU Local 1021)

It worked on us, and we asked Garrett to help explain the ongoing dispute. He said that the last union contract — which covers people in all sorts of museum positions, from sales clerks to technicians to membership staff — expired in October 2011. Negotiations began about two months before that, but according to Garrett, “We came to the table asking for nothing more than a ratification of our current contract, and they [the Corporation of Fine Arts Museums] came to the table with a completely new contract.”

At issue in the new contract were two proposals: a new muli-tiered wage system, which would divide and create different payment conditions for old and new workers, and health insurance. Previously, the union workers did not pay out of their salaries for health care coverage; they are now being asked to pay something — possibly $50 per month, possibly a certain percentage.

Detail, De Young Museum, San Francisco, by Herzog & de Meuron (via CTG/SF’s Flickrstream)

After an incredibly long delay, the two groups are back at the bargaining table as of last week, working with a federal mediator. According to Ken Garcia, director of communications and government relations for the Fine Arts Museums, the tiered system has been dropped, but the health care issue still stands.

“What they might call a drastic change is they are being asked to pay a percentage of their salary for their health care coverage,” Garcia told Hyperallergic. “That is different, but who doesn’t pay? They certainly don’t want to pay, they want to continue to be the only union that doesn’t pay for coverage — but that train has left the station.”

Garcia added that the museums have offered the union a 12% pay increase over three years. “This is probably the most lucrative contract that any city union has been offered in the past ten years.”

But Garrett insists that the museum is spinning the truth:

They are using the phrase “generous offer” but never detailing the reality. While they say the multi-tier wage system is off the table, they’ve actually just re-arranged the furniture.

After 20 years museum management wants to alter the existing wage scale so that only a handful of older workers will benefit from the pay increase while new hires would not be allowed to advance at the same rate as existing employees. The devil is definitely in the details here, which they are obviously reluctant to share. Additionally, their proposed healthcare premiums would significantly outweigh their “generous offer” for families of two or more and anyone requiring medical specialists. With a life-threatening illness of my own, I already co-pay significantly for monthly meds and every three months for blood-work.

The two sides offer different stories, too, about who is to blame for the months-long negotiation stalemate. Garrett says museum management refused to turn over financial documents that the union needed to bargain, and that the other side refused to come to the table for up to six months, until the recent federal mediation. Garcia denies these allegations, saying the museum gave the unions a number of dates to meet this past summer, “and they refused all of them.”

Whoever is to blame, it stands that 94 museum employees have been living and working — members voted to authorize SEIU to call a strike, but that hasn’t yet happened — for the past year without a contract. Garrett explained the stress that this places on them: “People just want to come to work and not wake up at 3 in the morning and think about work and how paranoid they feel.”

Garrett sees it as part of a “glaring tonal shift” at the Fine Arts Museums, “from a once familial work environment to a much colder corporate behavior and practice.”

“While the city of San Francisco owns both the museums and all the art within, it has allowed the folks with the deepest pockets to call the shots.”

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...