Exploratorium Workers Protest Layoffs

Exploratorium union workers and allies staged a protest in response to layoffs of 18 workers. They marched outside the science museum on Pier 15 in San Francisco. (Alan Toth/KQED)

Editor's note: This post contains a correction.

Visitors arriving at San Francisco's Exploratorium on Thursday to take in the wonders of science were greeted with an added spectacle: a protest by employees who are trying to head off the recently announced layoffs of 30 workers.

The action at the waterfront museum, which drew about 80 purple-clad protesters, was organized by SEIU Local 1021, the union representing rank-and-file Exploratorium staffers.

The workers say that management's cost-cutting measures -- including the layoffs of 18 union employees and a dozen middle managers -- are falling disproportionately on lower-paid staff while sparing senior managers. This is the second round of layoffs for the Exploratorium, which laid off 80 employees in 2013 after the organization moved to Piers 15/17 from the Palace of Fine Arts, its home of 44 years.

San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar was among those who appeared at the protest to show support for the workers. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“We will fight the layoffs,” Mar said through a megaphone on the Embarcadero. “I and other members of the Board of Supervisors will be watching the Exploratorium closely. No to corporate-type management, yes to workers’ power!”

The protesters and museum officials offer competing claims about who's making what at the Exploratorium. Local 1021 says the average union employee makes $45,000 a year, and contrasts that figure with the salary of retiring Exploratorium Executive Director Dennis M. Bartels, who the union says makes more than $400,000 a year.

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Exploratorium management counters that the average union worker's salary is $80,000 a year and that Bartels, the institution's top-paid employee, makes $380,000. (The museum's federal tax return for the year ending June 30, 2014, reported Bartels' total compensation as $345,000. He was one of eight senior managers listed with total pay of $212,000 or more for that year.)

Union chapter president Kevin Boyd said George Cogan, the Exploratorium's board chair, recently told staffers at an all-hands meeting that the board is likely to offer a higher salary when it chooses a new executive director. Boyd said the higher pay would be unfair in light of the pending layoffs.

Cogan confirmed in an email Friday that the new executive director's salary "will likely be higher."

Renny Talianchich worked for the Exploratorium for 9 months. She worked in the Girls Science Institute, an Exploratorium summer camp program. She is one of the 18 workers who will be laid off on October 9th.
Renny Talianchich worked for the Exploratorium for nine months. She worked in the Girls Science Institute, an Exploratorium summer camp program. She is one of the 18 workers who will be laid off on Oct. 9. (Alan Toth/KQED)

"Compared to other museums and nonprofits we have not been competitive from a salary standpoint," Cogan said. "We’re significantly below industry standards."

Cogan said the staff cuts are necessary because of major shifts in the Exploratorium's revenue and expenses since moving in April 2013 to its new home at Piers 15/17.

"The first few years of any major relocation is a time of refining and calibrating an institution’s many income streams with its aspirations for new and expanded services to the public," Cogan said. "Our revenues, audiences and impact have doubled since before our move ... but expenses have grown more and we are still adjusting to the implications of those changes."

Cogan said that by "narrowing its expenses," the museum can "re-focus our energy on several important pillars of our work and to continue to broaden our impact."

Renny Talianchich, one of those being laid off, says she was hired just nine months ago to help grow the Exploratorium's Girls Science Institute, a day-camp program.

Now, Talianchich says the entire program has been canceled, a change she says is as puzzling as it is abrupt.

“I love the Exploratorium.” Talianchich said. “I thought it was going to be my forever workplace.”

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Correction: This post has corrected the attribution for statements from Exploratorium board chair George Cogan.

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