Left, a sign questions the notion of corporate “personhood,” and right, Mark Keenan, who is on the Workers Negotiating Committee, marches in the protest in front of Sotheby’s. (all photos by the author)

Today’s protest at the Sotheby’s corporate offices on York Avenue was enlivened by dozens of people from #OccupyWallStreet who joined the Sotheby’s art handlers in their efforts to get a fair agreement with the auction giant. This is not the first time the Occupy-ers have joined the art handlers’ protest. The Zuccotti Park-based group disrupted a Sotheby’s contemporary art auction on September 22 and last week they informed diners at the Union Square Cafe, which is owned by Sotheby’s board member Danny Meyer, that they were patronizing the establishment of someone who is supporting the lock out.

The incentive behind today’s Occupy Wall Street was to continue the fight for fair contracts for the unioned workers of Teamsters Local 814, which represents the art handlers. The Sotheby’s workers have been locked out for over 11 weeks over a worker union dispute. The dispute: In 2010, Sotheby’s celebrated record earnings to the tune of $680 million. In fact Sotheby’s 2010 Annual Report states:

Trust, long-term relationships, mutually beneficial partnerships between sellers and Sotheby’s; these elements have combined to make 2010 one of the most successful years in our 267-year history.

Sotheby’s employees locked in.

In conjunction with this it is alleged that Sotheby’s employees were asked to take a 15% pay cut in order to compensate for tough economic times. Today Occupy Wall Street and the workers’ union met outside Sotheby’s headquarters on the Upper East Side of New York City to protest what they call “an unjust share.”

Mark Keenan is one of the lead negotiating committee members and explains that discussion to find a resolution is being hampered by Sotheby’s lack of willingness to attend regular meetings. As a result no progress is made. The workers committee is requesting 4-5 eight hour-long meetings per month (one full work week) to negotiate a fair contract opposed to the one-day a month meeting that is currently scheduled. Eighty or so other protestors joined Keenan calling to Sotheby’s to take action and compensate workers more equally.

Joan Stephens, Sotheby’s client. (Photo by Author)

Frequent Sotheby’s client Joan Stephens walks out the front doors into the noise of the chants and whistles. “I have one word for you, FRIGHTENING,” she says covering her ears.

“Why frightening?” I ask.

“I have lunch at Sotheby’s three times a week and today they had to give me a pass,” she replies.

Stephens also says she belongs to a Union SAG (Screen Actors Guild) herself, but maintains that this kind of protest seen today is not the kind she would support. “I live just around the corner and you don’t know where these people come from. We don’t know what they might have, and no-one is frisking them,” she says.

It is Matthew Hickson’s first day in New York City. He is a student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and he came especially to join Occupy Wall Street and camp out for his fall break as a “show of solidarity.” He joined the march outside Sotheby’s for a greater concern for financial equality between corporations and work force. With student loans being a major financial burden for students, Hickson is concerned for his future:

“All Corporations do that” says Ruth a passerby who lives in New York City. “I’m on [the workers] side. Corporations are always like that, and the workers get nothing”.

Two Sotheby’s employees walk out the door purses in and to grab lunch. Any comment I ask?  “Sorry no, we can’t say anything,” they both respond.

Claire Breukel

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...