Union Strike Could Shut Down SF Museums

The Museum Workers' Union voted to strike after negotiations with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco broke down.

It’s unlikely you’d ever pinpoint Mark Garrett’s work in the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, even though he’s worked there for 23 years. Things like picture matting and framing tend to go unappreciated in the echelons of the art world.

It could also be Garrett prefers to remain behind the scenes, sort of like the labor union that represents him and 114 other workers at the Legion of Honor and DeYoung Museums.

“We’re quite a sleepy little union chapter,” Garrett said of SEIU Local 1021.

But after 11 months of tense labor negotiations between the museum workers’ union and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which runs the two museums, you could say workers have woke up.

Last week, the union said 90% of the employees voted to authorize a strike after a breakdown in those negotiations. Labor leaders say the issue is the contract offered Fine Arts Museums would include far less pay for future hires, while requiring existing employees to chip in more for their health insurance. The union fears the contrast in pay could make it far more attractive for the museums to replace higher paid existing workers with lower paid newer ones.

“The strike authorization vote has pretty much clarified that we’re not taking this sitting down,” said Garrett.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Fine Arts Museums said the union’s stance was unfortunate in light of the museum’s “fair and generous contract offer.” He also said “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.’’

The tough stance has left union workers, including art handlers, front desk staff and membership representatives playing the unlikely role of tough guys. On Monday, a handful of workers inflated a giant rat, purchased solely for the negotiations, in front of the Legion of Honor. Members passed out fliers to tourists which included a bride and groom who showed-up at the museum to take photos.

“Museum workers, they typically don’t get in labor disputes,” said Cristal Java, who is handling the union’s negotiations. “They like to have conversations, they’re artists.”

Java said some workers had recently taken to wearing purple in support of the union. She said previously, a museum worker wearing a union sticker was considered a bold statement.

“They’re not aggressive unionists so I’ve never seen anything like this,” Java said.

Union workers were optimistic they’d be able to reach an agreement without having to strike, but reiterated they were prepared to do so. Though the group authorized a strike, no date was set. The union said no new negotiations were scheduled.

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