When patrons arrived at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Thursday, July 19, for a screening of 1971 blaxploitation flick Shaft, they were greeted by organized labor supporters with thousands of handouts addressed to museum director Neal Benezra.
“After three months of bargaining [SFMOMA] continues to hold on a one-year wage freeze and 1% annual raises to the majority of workers,” the flyers read, above a picture of Benezra with a speech bubble noting his $800,000 salary. “This is particularly hypocritical as the museum attempts to expand their ‘diversity’ programming.”
The handouts were headlined, “Stop giving SFMOMA workers the SHAFT.”
Backers of the Oakland-based Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29, which represents 245 museum employees, organized the action, calling it an “informational event intended to get the word out.” Since May, a four-year contract renegotiation has proceeded fitfully, and recently entered mediation as the museum resists union proposals including raises based on cost-of-living hikes in San Francisco.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been as far as the museum holding on an inequitable wage proposal,” said OPEIU organizer Natalie Naylor, who’s represented SFMOMA workers for the past 16 years. The bargaining team sat for its twelfth negotiation session Thursday, Aug. 9. Naylor said that the officials' proposal inordinately impacts the public-facing, so-called “frontline” staff, which is the museum workforce’s most racially diverse cohort.
She added, “We’re trying to avoid a strike."
“There’s a national attack on workers’ rights from the Trump administration, but that doesn’t let San Francisco off the hook,” said James Tracy, who helped organize the July event through his role in pro-labor organization Jobs with Justice. “This points to income inequality in the Bay.”
The ongoing dispute, which echoes a recent union struggle at MoMA in New York, is darkening the first contract renegotiation since SFMOMA reopened in 2016 following a $305 million expansion—and with an annual budget doubled to more than $70 million. Tracy said the respective museum struggles illustrate an art-world trend. “Even institutions that receive massive public support are treating their workers as expendable,” he said.
According to Naylor, at the time of the Shaft action, the museum was proposing a one-year raise freeze followed by 1 percent annual raises for the following two years. By the time negotiations entered mediation this week, she said, SFMOMA had warmed to a 1 percent raise the first year. The union, meanwhile, is proposing a flat annual raise of approximately $1.50, which Naylor described as the equivalent of 4-8 percent.
The problem, as Naylor described it, is that the museum refuses to use cost-of-living in San Francisco—where median rent is more than any city in the world, according to a recent study by finance website WalletWyse—as a factor in determining fair raises. Instead, she said, SFMOMA is looking to wages at comparable art institutions as a benchmark.
According to current job postings, frontline "Visitor Experience" positions pay just above $15/hour, and Naylor said that employees who work more than 21 hours a week receive benefits. The wage is making it difficult for the museum to retain and attract employees, she said, and a frontline worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity described morale as sinking.
“We’re extremely short-staffed, bare bones” the current employee said, noting record-attendance since SFMOMA’s reopening. “So people are being asked to do more work, and with inflation it’s more work for less pay.”
Other union asks include nixing the all-black dress code for frontline workers (others wear business casual), but raises are at the fore of the talks. As a union memo recently posted to the newly-launched @sfmomaunion Instagram reads, “We work in the most expensive city in the world, but the museum doesn’t believe in cost of living wage increases?!”
Benezra didn’t respond to an interview request, and an SFMOMA spokesperson provided only a written statement to KQED. “We are not at an impasse and have reached tentative agreement on a number of key points,” it reads. “We are still actively bargaining wages so it is too early to speak to increases over the life of the contract.”
The day after KQED’s inquiry, SFMOMA officials emailed staff a similar statement. “The museum continues to bargain in good faith and, based on our successful decades-long relationship with OPEIU, we are hopeful that we will reach an agreement soon,” it reads.
Full Disclosure: The author has written for SFMOMA’s culture platform, Open Space.