At the opening of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s new location Sunday, seven members of the campus Student Labor Committee stood amid the newly revealed painting and sculptures wearing large signs that bore testimonies of alleged mistreatment of campus contract workers.
The students were protesting the campus’s decision to designate funds to the creation of an art museum rather than to increase benefits for campus workers. Their signs alleged that independent contractors of UC Berkeley — such as Performance First and ABM — are committing wage theft against employees, creating unsafe working conditions and punishing workers for organizing.
“A lot of people ask if it’s like art or a protest,” said campus sophomore Nancy Romo, who participated in the demonstration. “I guess it’s both.”
Museum security told the students that they could remain in the museum on the condition that they did not block any of the art. The students remained in the gallery between 6 and 7 p.m.
Spectators at the museum were largely supportive of the demonstration, noting that it made them more aware of below-the-surface issues regarding university policy.
“When you come to a beautiful place like this and then you see something like that, it reminds you that it comes at a cost,” said Richard Schatzman, who attended the opening.
But Peter Cavagnaro, media relations manager for BAMPFA, clarified that no contract workers would be used to staff the museum.
According to Cavagnaro, BAMPFA employs 60 full-time campus employees and 150 to 200 work-study students, depending on seasonal demands.
But Student Labor Committee organizer Kristian Kim stressed that the demonstration was largely “symbolic” and that the new BAMPFA building serves not necessarily as a concrete example of injustice but rather as an emblem of a greater problem.
“(This building) is the physical representation of the fact that the university has $112 million to burn on a shiny new building … but doesn’t have the money to give its workers — who clean buildings like these — living wages,” Kim said.
The Student Labor Committee has held similar protests in support of contract workers’ rights in the past year, including a sit-in at California Hall in December 2015.
The BAMPFA project cost $112 million but was funded entirely by private donations, largely from the university’s alumni and nonprofit philanthropic organizations, according to Cavagnaro.
Plans to build a new BAMPFA began in 1997 when the former location on Bancroft Way between College Avenue and Bowditch Street was deemed seismically unsafe in an engineering survey.
“The university is an academic institution, and we believe that exposure to the arts is an essential part of a world-class education,” Cavagnaro said in an email.
Demonstrators said that whether or not the construction is funded by student tuition, it is concerning that the campus focused its efforts into running a philanthropic campaign rather than improving conditions for workers.