Usually, says Cristal Java, an organizer for Service Employees International Union Local, negotiations over museum workers' contracts, like the employees themselves, tend to be quiet and polite.
That's why some eyebrows went up when those workers and their supporters marched in front of the de Young Museum Friday morning before Labor Day, chanting old favorites such as "No justice, no peace!" and the less often heard, "No contract, no Picassos!" The following Friday evening they were back with a couple hundred supporters. Some blocked the entrances, and 19 were arrested for misdemeanor trespassing and released.
What has pushed the members of SEIU 1021, the workers who catalog, transport, and display artworks at the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, to this point? Contract negotiations have dragged on for almost a year, they say, with intimidation tactics, proposals to reduce wages for future employees, and increased health care costs for the current workers. This isn't because of financial woes, the union members assert -- they say the private, nonprofit Corporation of Fine Arts Museums, which manages the two campuses, has seen profits of more than $19 million in the last two years. On Thursday the two sides met with a federal mediator. Mark Garrett, a matter and framer at the Legion of Honor for more than 20 years, says he can't say much about the specifics due to the nature of contract talks, but he says they are "hoping for the best and preparing for the worst." More than 90 percent of the employees voted to sanction a strike. Garrett believes that accepting a two-tier system, with new employees making less, would be unfair and wrong. "They're pitting older workers against new hires and dividing and conquering," he said. "It's about privatizing rather than creating a family of employees caring for the city's art collection." Ken Garcia, the communication director for the Fine Arts Museums, counters that it is the union, not management, responsible for the protracted talks. He says they offered SEIU 1021 a contract in July that included a 12 percent salary raise. "I guarantee that's the most lucrative city contract in recent history," Garcia said. "It's incredibly generous in these economic times, and their refusal to accept is baffling." Stephen Lockwood, a senior museum registrar and the chief negotiator for SEIU 1021, agrees with Garrett that it isn't right to take a raise if that means future employees won't get a fair deal. "They have offered to throw a lot of money at us in the hopes that we will sign off on a contract that screws all the new people coming in," Lockwood said. Lockwood thinks management wants to weaken the union with a two-tier system, and Conny Ford with the San Francisco Labor Council, agrees. That's why the greater labor movement has gotten behind the fight in this small chapter with about 100 members, she says. "The right wing corporations are trying to dismantle us little shop by little shop," she said. "It's vital that we save every worker and every contract." That's the reason Ford and others from the San Francisco Labor Council have come out to the demonstrations, along with Supervisors John Avalos, Eric Mar, and Christina Olague. The show of support doesn't impress Garcia. He charges that people coming to these demonstrations are driving a political movement, not the employees themselves. Lockwood dismisses this, saying workers, including himself, have been participating. He also points to the vast majority of the museum workers voting for a strike if contract talks fall through as evidence that his colleagues are frustrated by how they're being treated. Lockwood has negotiated four or five other contracts, and the feeling this time is totally different, he says. "I don't know where the museum is coming from," he said. "From the very beginning, they've wanted to take apart everything we've achieved over the past 15 years."