Hurricane Irene may be fast approaching, but there was another type of storm in full force yesterday in front of the Sotheby’s auction house on 72nd and York Avenue in Manhattan. Art handlers of the Teamsters Local 814 union, who were locked out of their jobs at Sotheby’s earlier this month, doubled their efforts to make their anger heard. Hundreds of workers and supporters took over the usually staid streets of the Upper East Side in front of the Sotheby’s offices, shouting for union rights.
After meetings on both August 10 and 16, Sotheby’s and Local 814 have failed to find common ground on a new contract that would cut the worker’s hours, pay and pensions, as well as replace several experienced unionized handlers with temporary unskilled employees.
Local 814 President Jason Ide explained to me that the auction house has been less than willing to negotiate, cutting meetings short and refusing to back down on any of their contract demands. “Sotheby’s has sent a clear message that they do not want to compromise,” Ide said.
Sotheby’s has pushed off the next meeting till September 12, a strange move that ensures the labor conflict will continue to wage on as the auction house gears up for its fall season and the beginning of its Asia Week sales. Investors and buyers may very well be greeted by the mob of angry Teamsters, who promise to continue protesting until they get what they want. I reached out to Sotheby’s for a comment but received no response.
Things started off somewhat calm on Friday afternoon as Local 814 members walked the picket line as they have been doing everyday since they received letters from Sotheby’s on July 29 telling them not to come back to work. The union blow-up rat mascot was in hiding, but was replaced by a giant fat cat in a suit, ruthlessly squeezing a union worker in his greedy claw. Two large speakers blasted music on the corner of 72nd Street and workers danced and blew whistles (and one vuvuzela) in the picket line.
Art handler Mark Keenan noted that moral has been great among the workers, and from the block party atmosphere that hung in the air, there is no doubt that the Teamsters are keeping their spirits high. “The longer we stay out here the stronger the moral gets,” Keenan told me. It’s clear that these men have an intense passion for their jobs and are extremely knowledgeable about the field. One union member, Sim Jones, has been working as an art handler for forty-two years and specializes in Chinese ceramics. Another handler and graffiti artist, Luis Lamboy, lent his skills to making the colorful and enraged posters that several workers donned at the rally.
Several notable guests were in attendance at the rally, including George Miranda, the president of Teamsters Joint Council 16 in New York, James P. Hoffa, president of the 1.4 million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters and New York State Assemblyman Micah Kellner from the 65th district, which includes the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island. Kellner pointed out the fact that Sotheby’s has enjoyed record profits this year and demanded that “everyone should share in that.” He added, “I don’t want public dollars being invested in a company that breaks the back of its workers.”
At about 4:30pm, Local 814 was joined by hundreds of Teamster women who were in town for the 2011 Teamster Women’s Conference. Crossing over York Avenue, the women carried posters of famous artworks vandalized with rips and markings to show “what can happen when you put art in the wrong hands,” as Ide explained.
Other signs read “Jackson Lewis destroys good art,” indicting the law firm that Sotheby’s hired to mediate the contract dispute. Ide lambasted Jackson Lewis in a recent press release as “one of America’s most notoriously union-hostile law firms.” The firm has a reputation for helping New York employers replace union workers with a temporary workforce.
After the women arrived, the rally really kicked off. Ide, Miranda and Hoffa each spoke to the massive crowd that gathered on the corner of 72nd street, right below the offices of Sotheby’s. Hoffa declared that the Teamsters plan to take their fight to an international level and cast the net of union power overseas:
They have an office in London and we are calling London today and we will have pickets in London. We are going after them, and if they don’t settle this strike we’ll shut this place down!