SEIU 1021

Cal Academy of Sciences members fight back against layoffs
Less than a year after forming their union, they are still organizing -- for a fair first contract and to prevent proposed layoffs


Since voting by a landslide 77% to form their union with SEIU 1021 last July, workers at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco have not stopped organizing. In addition to pushing for a fair first contract at the bargaining table, they are now also having to fight proposed involuntary layoffs. Wednesday, May 22, they took that fight directly to the Academy’s board of trustees.

Late last month, Academy Executive Director Scott Sampson alerted employees to an over $8 million budget deficit and said they would need to eliminate $4 million in labor costs. The management team began offering a voluntary separation package and encouraging staff in certain departments to take it — warning that if they did not, they may be faced with involuntary layoffs that would have a far less generous severance package.

While so far Academy management has not provided written notification of specific layoffs or elimination of specific positions or departments, staff have been told that teacher professional development, planetarium presenter, and scientist positions are on the chopping block. Apparently not being considered in labor cost reductions: cuts to executive pay (which has climbed from 5-6% of the labor budget in 2007-2015 to 10% today) and to the HR department, where some 11 new, vaguely-defined positions have been created to the tune of $2 million since the workers won their union a year ago.

They created and started circulating a petition earlier this month demanding the board of trustees reject a budget containing involuntary layoffs; it has garnered over 700 signatures from Academy employees, volunteers, visitors, and fellow union members.

Last Wednesday, the board of trustees gave 10 minutes of their meeting to a small delegation of Academy staff. They presented the petition and a flyer urging the board to prioritize mission-central programming over inflated executive pay and a bloated HR department. They also spoke from the heart about why the programs and positions facing potential cuts are so critical to the Academy’s mission.

Senior biologist Holly Rosenblum shared remarks from fellow union member and planetarium presenter Teddy Vollman: “We presenters are a key part of the Academy’s mission. The connections we forge enable our guests to learn about science together, collaboratively. We provide opportunities many of our guests would never otherwise experience, whether it is being able to view the moons of Jupiter through a telescope or simply touch a meteorite. These experiences, which cannot be automated, and do not exist at many planetaria, develop curiosity and inspire the kind of awe which they will share with countless others.

“This past Friday, a guest approached me after viewing our multiple-award-winning program Spark: The Universe in Us. She had seen it before without the live science update we perform in nearly all presentations of Spark, and expressed that the additional information added a lot to the experience. And, I think most importantly, this past Sunday a guest remarked that my presence added a soul not found in other planetariums he had visited.

“By ending the work my colleagues and I do, the Academy loses that soul, and everything that comes with it.”

Senior associate of teacher professional development Larissa Walder spoke to the importance of the Academy’s education programs: “For over 25 years, the Academy’s teacher programs have provided educators with transformative professional development that increases the quality and quantity of science taught in pre K-12 classrooms.

“Over the past decade, these programs have impacted more than 8,000 teachers and one million students, primarily in the Bay Area. Much of this work aims to increase access to high-quality science learning for students and teachers in systematically excluded groups, such as Black and Latine students and English language learners.  

“Students from systematically excluded groups are also more likely to attend after-school and out-of-school-time programs. This is the community Science Action Club serves. Just this last quarter of FY24, this program trained 65 Educators, and engaged with over 2000 youth in 100 clubs in California and beyond.

“Finally, the Bayview Science Institute has a mission focused on environmental, place-based learning and building trust and community through science. BSI serves teachers at 14 schools in Bayview Hunters Point and the southeast corner of San Francisco. San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been funding BSI since the program began in 2017.”

In addition to delivering the petition and pleading for the board to reject layoffs, the Cal Academy Workers United (CAWU) chapter of SEIU 1021 also staged a visibility action the same day. Members sporting their union shirts and buttons gathered by the swamp to be seen by the board of trustees as they previewed the Academy’s new exhibit, California: State of Nature.

“Overall, the presentation to the board and delivery of the petition and flyer were received respectfully and the board listened to our full statements,” said Holly. ”We were informed by email from the CFO that the board did approve the budget. We’ve also heard from people in the room that while the overall budget was approved they were moved by our statements: ’they were heartfelt and powerful’ and may ‘move things around’ in regards to the layoffs. 

“The current crisis we face has brought staff together, and the team that presented to the board was thrilled by the support shown by our colleagues who joined us at the swamp in union shirts and pins for a picture and to show off our solidarity!

“Academy leadership may have neglected their responsibilities, but CAWU is committed to upholding the Academy’s mission and protecting jobs that serve our guests and community.”

Read about the workers’ fight against layoffs in the SF Standard here and in the SF Chronicle here. And be sure to sign their petition here if you haven’t already!