A dinosaur.
The California Academy of Sciences museum. Photo by Superchilum.

The 170-year-old California Academy of Sciences (CalAcademy) museum is slated to unionize, its workers’ would-be union announced today

After months of underground efforts, 300 employees across divisions and departments of CalAcademy’ 556 employees or so have joined the unionization campaign. “We’re fighting for better wages, job security, and more transparency in decision making,” their announcement reads. “Together, we can build a better future for ourselves, our families, and our planet.”

Already calling themselves the CalAcademy Workers United, the forthcoming union will be affiliated with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 (SEIU 1021).

“Academy is a great place to work, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make it better,” said Richie Lipton, a 14-year CalAcademy employee and a member of the organizing committee, at a rally today at the Bandshell in Golden Gate Park. 

Lipton, as well as many other floor staff, scientists, and educators from CalAcademy present, were visibly excited about no longer having to remain silent about the union movement.

James DePonte, a biologist in the aquarium, said “It’s the right thing to do together, because divided, we beg; united, we bargain.” In his 12 years at CalAcademy, DePonte has seen both growth and evolution, as well as stagnation and frustration, especially for the workers who have to keep up with the cost of living in the Bay Area. All they get is more work and fewer resources, according to DePonte.

Going public today is merely the first step in getting the better wages, improved benefits and working conditions, and regular pay raises that workers envision. “Once we’re public, we’re expecting to be able to organize more and faster, because it will be above-ground,” said Jennie Smith-Camejo, communications lead of SEIU 1021. 

Once a majority of eligible workers have signed the union authorization cards, meaning they agree to work with the union, CalAcademy can choose to voluntarily recognize the union, though “most usually they do not do card check recognition,” said Smith-Camejo.

Without CalAcademy’s recognition, the other choice left for the workers is to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election, which is expected to take place a few months after the filing. This was the case at both Anchor Brewing and Tartine.

“A lot of times, the employer uses that time to launch an anti-union campaign and try to convince the workers to vote no,” said Smith-Camejo, “We’re hoping for the best, but preparing for a fight.”

Scott Sampson, the executive director of California Academy of Sciences, said in a statement to Mission Local that, “We know our employees are critical to everything we do, and hope to achieve at the Academy, and we seek to create a thriving, healthy workplace. We just learned of this effort today, and look forward to engaging with staff to discuss their concerns.”

Nationwide, workers at nearly two dozen American art museums have established collective bargaining units in recent years to fight for better pay and working conditions, according to a February, 2022, article in the New York Times

“Across the country, museum workers are unionizing in droves. We are joining a movement of millions of workers,” said Nat Kramm, a CalAcademy employee. “We are a little bit behind the other museums in the Bay Area; nearly every single one of them is unionized. I think, better late than never.” 

Locally, the Asian Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Exploratorium are already affiliated with SEIU 1021. 

The workers lobbying for a union at CalAcademy include those who care for the animals, maintain exhibits, teach, sell tickets, raise funds, and conduct research.

“Forming a union will ensure a seat at the table, so that when those tough conversations need to happen, there won’t be any more of these unilateral decisions made without any staff input,” said Victoria Langlands, who was laid off in the midst of the pandemic and managed to find her way back as a rehire.

Greg Rotter, an interactive developer who’s been on staff since the new building of 2008, said, “The priorities need shifting. The corporate mentality that seems to have a grip on the Academy needs to be addressed, and we are done asking politely for a seat at the table and getting ignored.”

“It’s about time!” said District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan at the rally. “Hopefully it’s not a crazy fight, but if it is, we will stand with you, rain or shine.”

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  1. Hilarious. The same union who resisted backing the disabled, families and seniors when it came to access to Golden Gate Park, are crying about the rights at the Academy of Science. The deYoung and the Academy of Science is devoid of folks these days because this action. The entitled, elitist bike nuts and their cronies at city hall and the unions killed the golden goose. Let’s see how your unionizing goes. Ha.

  2. Workers really have another choice, if they were brave enough.

    It would take real effort, but they could form an independent rank-and-file committee to bargain free of union control. The workers would be in control.

    Had anyone noticed lately, unions, like SEIU, function as a way to isolate workers from each other (utilizing identity issues like gender, race, profession, and nationality) to promote an affluent union bureaucracy that has little in common with the needs and worth of workers.

    Unions today function chiefly as a tool of management to control workers and funnel money and support to the Democratic Party, one of our two ruling class parties.

    While bureaucrats can boast and virtue-signal about their “unearned privileges, dismantling white supremacy, and gifting equity to this country,” international workers, brothers and sisters, will predictably end up on treadmills that will scarcely improve their lives over time.

    Workers should recognize their shared working class interests and remember their combined power.

    They should be suspicious of promises of prosperity without effort.

    1. I disagree with pretty much all of what you’ve said! I worked at a local museum and was a dues paying union member of the SEIU. 1021 really only interacted with us when it came down to grievances and contract negotiations- the stewards and officers were our coworkers who we knew and continued to work with every day. We negotiated our own contracts and benefited from the wider experience of union reps when it came to pitfalls and common issues. The culture war bogie-men of which you speak are mostly in your head and discussions about this sort of thing came up from the ranks, not down from union professionals.
      Something to keep in mind when suggesting that workers should be “brave” enough to organize by themselves is that this is easier said than done- it’s not an issue of bravery etc. It’s an issue of bandwidth and experience- management has entire departments and the budget to allocate paid expertise towards fighting back against workers organizing, whereas the workers already have full time jobs that they have to continue to fulfill while organizing themselves. Getting professional assistance from experienced labor only makes sense.

    2. Thank you for this Article….

      Union, Planet and Science yes

      Workers unions bug play a symbiotic scientific relationship in our world