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FROM THE PROTEST: Sotheby’s Anti-Union Games, Dupes Art Handlers

by Liza Eliano on August 2, 2011

Protesters outside Sotheby's at 72nd Street & York Avenue (photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

The Upper East Side is alive today with shouts of “UNION POWER” as Sotheby’s art handlers took to the streets to protest a new contract agreement that would drastically jeopardize their benefits. President Jason Ide of the art handlers union Teamsters Local 814 states the Sotheby’s is looking to “gut the union contract” with cuts to both wages and hours  as well as the replacement of several highly skilled unionized handlers with temporary low-wage workers.

How will this fair for the handling of Picassos, Rembrants and other precious masterpieces? “I’m concerned,” said Ide. “Putting multi-million dollar works in the hands of a temporary crew is not a good idea. This is not going to benefit the clients, auction house or workers.”

Protesters with the big rat that has become a characteristic symbol of union protests in New York (click to enlarge)

After Teamsters refused to agree to Sotheby’s concessions, art handlers were locked out of the auction house and told not to come back to work on Monday. I spoke with several protesters at the site who sported banners emblazoned with “Locked Out: Sotheby’s” and “Stop the War on Workers.” Art Handler Roger Ousley pointed out that, “Sotheby’s is saying our demands are adding too much cost, but they just gave $12 million dollars in raises to their employees.” The numbers don’t lie.

Teamsters’ press release states that this had been a banner year for the auction house with gross profits topping $680 million, making it even more inconceivable that the company would institute such wasteful cuts to it’s experienced staff.

A Sotheby’s statement provided to Hyperallergic says they will continue to “bargain in good faith,” but also seems to point a finger at handlers for disrupting preparations for their fall season:

Given the union’s repeated threats of a strike in their many statements to the media during our negotiations, and the fact that our fall season is just one month away, we have had to make alternative arrangements, as we cannot be unprepared for a strike that could have happened at any time.

While both sides have engaged in talks since May, a final settlement has been pushed off until next week, August 10. As temporary employees move in, the only thing these unionized workers will be handling is the menacing Inflatable Union Rat that crouches on York Avenue. Art handler Mark Keenan provides a final throught on the matter, “You couldn’t find a better example of corporate greed in this country right now.”

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  • Den Hickey

    And as is always the case.. I’m sure Sotheby’s is doing this because they are in dire financial straits and their highest paid execs, etc.. have already taken modest pay cuts from their huge salaries so that people who make far far less than them but usually do far far more real work won’t have to suffer.  Its about damned time that business stops seeing pay and benefits for its employees (who aren’t making huge amounts of money) as a negative thing.. as an expense to be cut to the bone whenever and however possible.

  • Art spy

    You would think providing their clients with savvy, experienced art handlers would be a good investment. I bet one Ed Ruscha or Jeff Koons sale would more than cover the cost of these union demands.

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