Over 40 professional art handlers and supporters rallied on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art last Tuesday during the museum’s second annual “Multicultural Gala,” a fundraising event meant to inspire collaboration between the museum’s diverse constituencies. The protest is the latest development in a lockout of unionized art handlers, who oversee the transportation, handling, and care of Sotheby’s Auction House priceless art objects, that began on July 29. That night, while Met board members and Sotheby’s board advisors Michael David Weill and Caroll Petrie were inside celebrating diversity in the arts, the art handlers, who are mostly from minority groups, were fighting to be let back into their workplace.
The Sotheby’s labor dispute began almost two months ago when the auction house announced new contract agreements that would substantially reduce art handlers’ benefits. The new contract proposed by Sotheby’s asked that the current art handlers, some of whom have been working the auction house for over 40 years, give up their 401 K retirements plans. Additionally, Sotheby’s proposed a 10% wage cut, a limit on workers’ overtime, and eliminating certain positions that earn higher wages. The auction house even asked workers to give up on their right to sue the company for reasons of discrimination. As Teamster Local 814 president Jason Ides told the Independent, “they have made over a hundred changes to the contract including new work rules. To sum it up they want to gut the union contract and take a lot of money out of their members when they are doing well.” Sotheby’s is effectively trying to de-unionize its workforce, asking that all new hires to relinquish most of their health and retirement benefits.
When Teamsters Local 814, the union that represents art handlers, refused to sign the contract, Sotheby’s told all 43 of its art handlers on July 29th that they would not be allowed to return to work the following week. In their place, Sotheby’s has hired less-experienced, non-unionized workers. Ide explains, “[The lock out] wasn’t our idea, they did this and we think they are putting the property at risk. It’s a bad call putting your experienced people out on the street and bringing in temporary workers come in to do their jobs.” Since then, Sotheby’s art handlers have been effectively locked out from their jobs, and despite attempted negotiations the auction house has refused to concede. “They are not really moving from their position,” Ide adds. In a statement, the auction house defended their decision to lock out workers, blaming them for interfering with the auction house’s upcoming fall season. The statement reads, “Given the union’s repeated threats of a strike in their many statements to the media during our negotiations…we have had to make alternative arrangements, as we cannot be unprepared for a strike that could have happened at any time.” When asked to respond to Sotheby’s allegations, Ide replied, “They said they are willing to take as much time as it needed to get a fair contract to the workers, but apparently as much time as they needed meant locking us out since July, so this came as a shock."
“Sotheby’s: Bad for Art”
These staggering cuts in workers’ rights and pay come during Sotheby’s most profitable year since it was established 267 years ago. This year alone, the auction house garnered gross profits of over $680 million dollars. According to the union, Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht, reportedly makes $30,000 a day. Sotheby’s attributed the top-flight profits this year to the growth in the Asian art market, and consequently gave employees working in that filed a net $12 million raise. Art handlers have been enraged at Sotheby’s decision to cut the benefits of its workers who are arguably in most need while still having money to raise wages. “I guess like a lot of people in America,” Ide said, “we thought that when a company did well they wouldn’t be going this route.” In an interview with ArtInfo, Ruprecht claimed that even though it had its most profitable year, there was also a rise in expense. However, the rise in expense was mostly due to the rise in compensation for only some of its workers. ArtInfo noted that in the interview, Ruprecht did not mention the locked out art handlers or how the labor dispute would affect Sotheby’s earnings.
Since the lockout, workers have been picketing at Sotheby’s headquarters in the Upper East Side, shouting “Union Power,” handing out leaflets, and holding banners that read, “Sotheby’s: Bad for Art” and “End the War on Workers.” “One things we made sure to do is to go to some of their top clients and make sure they are aware of what’s going on and ask for their support,” Ide added. Posters depict well-known art pieces from artists like Rene Magritte or van Gogh with tears and rips, presenting what they claim can happen if Sotheby’s hires inexperienced handlers to take care of valuable works of art, and tarnished masterpieces, along with Sotheby’s reputation. So far, Ide said they have gotten some “positive messages” from Sotheby’s clients. More importantly, Ide revealed that the art handlers’ plight will soon become an international fight. “We are doing some hand billing in Hong Kong and London and there are going to be protest at Sotheby’s around the world,” Ide added. “The Teamsters union has a pretty long arm.”
Occupied With Art
Art handlers aren’t the only ones that are concerned with the lockout. On September 22, nine protestors affiliated with the ongoing protest called “Occupy Wall Street” disrupted a Sotheby’s mid-season contemporary auction in a show of solidarity with the locked out workers. Two weeks ago, protestors gathered in the park under the banner of “Occupy Wall Street.” Although the movement has no clear leader, the protestors claim that they are fighting corporate greed and irresponsibility that has garnered Wall Street bankers millions in profit at the expense of working-class America. In the auction house, One by one, the Occupy Wall Street activists stood up during the auction to announce Sotheby’s recent treatment of its art handlers. As a YouTube video of the incident posted by Occupy Wall Street shows, each activist was swiftly escorted outside of the auction room, only to be succeeded by another. One of the protestors stood mid-bidding and yelled “This is disgusting! Art is about truth.” Another activist, who was wearing a shirt that read “Greed kills” clamored that the “greed in this building is a direct example of the corporate greed that has ruined our economy.”
“I’m really glad that lot of these folk that are speaking out against corporate greed are seeing that this is a prime example of corporate greed in New York,” Ide said. According to a statement from Occupy Wall Street, the supporters of the occupation sided with the locked out workers, congratulating their fight for worker’s rights and noting that Sotheby’s unfair treatment was just another example of corporate greed. “Sotheby’s art auctions epitomize the disconnect of the extremely wealthy from the rest of us,” the statement reads.
The future of the locked out workers is uncertain at best. With no sign of budging from either side, it is unclear when or even if the locked out handlers will be able to return to their jobs. “We are just trying to make sure that we have a secure retirement for the future,” Ide explained. “If management need more help then the 43 art handlers, we just want them to go to trained union people.” Beyond those demands, these art handlers, like many other Americans, simply want to get back to work.
ANA ALVAREZ B’13 is good for art.