San Francisco Museums' 10-Month Battle Over Labor Conditions Comes to an End

San Francisco Museums' 10-Month Battle Over Labor Conditions Comes to an End
SEIU Local 1021 members barricading the entrance to the de Young Museum
(Courtesy SEIU Local 1021)

Electricians, security guards, custodians, graphic artists, office administrators, and retail staff at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor and M.H. de Young museums voted today to ratify a new contract with their employer, the Corporation of Fine Arts Museums (COFAM). The agreement signals a moment of elation and relief among museum visitors and outside observers after a 10-month dispute in which COFAM and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 traded accusations of stubbornness, obstructionism, and disregard for the museum’s fiscal sustainability.

Though both parties began well ahead of time to work to replace the contract that expired in October 2011, negotiations were described by both sides over subsequent months as stilted and drawn-out. Tensions reached a high point last May when San Francisco city supervisor Eric Mar — himself a former shop steward of the SEIU Local 790 — wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner strongly supporting the union, echoing veteran members’ complaints about wage freezes (particularly among future workers) and arguing that COFAM’s stipulation that workers make a contribution to their own health coverage was unfair.

Though exact details of the negotiations have been kept out of the public record, management’s descriptions of their own offers have been swift and articulate throughout the process. Writing in the Examiner a week later, Michele Gutierrez-Canepa characterized the union’s noise about a “wage freeze” as “a pile of misinformation and inaccuracy.”

Gutierrez-Canepa referred to a proposal by COFAM that would have raised wages for all employees “immediately upon their ratification of an agreement.” The health insurance proposal, in her mind, was “a minor change,” in a class with the current compensation packages of most city employees. “In order to find a similar compensation model during these down economic times,” she wrote, “one would probably have to move to Sweden.”

The dialogue had a similar timbre months later, in August, when a sizable majority of union members formally approved a strike. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, SEIU returned to the sticking point of members’ health insurance premiums, describing COFAM’s terms as especially unacceptable given the institutions’ own uncommonly clean bill of health: “They are proposing a health care plan that is more expensive for union workers than highly paid management,” negotiator Cristal Java said of the museum and its directors. “It would be one thing if they were struggling, but they're not struggling.”

At that juncture, with the details of the workers’ contract closely guarded, it was hard to tell if the union or its employers should be believed. For their part, COFAM spokesperson Ken Garcia told the Chronicle that their last offer had been “extremely fair and generous.”

“It's unfortunate that the union's leadership has taken this step [approving the strike] in light of what the museum considers an extremely fair and generous contract offer,” he was quoted saying. “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.”

A wave of activism followed. On the evening of September 7th, protesters gathered outside the entrance to the de Young in Golden Gate Park during the museum’s weekly event series, “Friday Nights at the de Young Museum.” Wearing purple hoodies and t-shirts to show their support (SEIU’s logo is the color of grape bubble gum), demonstrators held signs, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and chanted, “Who's got the power? Union power!” Police were called after the protestors had fully barricaded the entrance, and CBS reported 19 people were arrested on suspicion of trespassing.

Two weeks later, COFAM released a statement announcing a “tentative accord” with the union under which 100 members would receive a 12 to 18 percent pay raise during the three years that their new contract is in effect. This would be in addition to a three percent pay increase upon signing the new contract and another three percent raise on January 1, 2013. 

At the same time, most workers will be required to make a minimal contribution to their own health care coverage. According to a statement, employees will pay on sliding scale that starts at a rate of $25 per month for employees, $50 for one dependent, and $75 for families.

The settlement may fall short of satisfying observers who have a craving for political theater, especially after months of being whetted by fiery op-ed columns and gushing crowds adorned in bright purple. It is unlikely that anyone — except, perhaps, for the museums visitors — will claim an out-and-out victory.