Workers at the art logistics company UOVO have announced their intention to organize with Teamsters Local 814, the city’s union for professional movers and art handlers. Last week, workers gathered at the corporation’s Queens headquarters alongside freshman New York State Senator Julia Salazar and Local 814’s president, Jason Ide. The gathering came ahead of an all-staff meeting meant to discourage unionization, according to the Teamsters.
“A company like UOVO, that counts on doing business with city-funded, pro-union institutions like the Met, and that has asked the city’s tax-payers to help subsidize their expansion into my district, should be expected to treat their workers with respect,” said the senator. “They should recognize their union immediately. If they continue to hold captive audience meetings and engage in anti-union tactics, then I think it’s our obligation as city and state officials to reexamine all of their dealings with public institutions and public funding.”
Over the last year, workers at major institutions like the Guggenheim Museum and the New Museum have voted to form unions, urging their employers to voluntarily recognize their bargaining power. Art handlers have been at the forefront of that fight, already securing unions at other organizations including Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The latest announcement by the UOVO workers indicates that the labor reform movement in the arts will continue to grow.
UOVO has secured the high-end corner of the art world, offering white glove services for packing, installation, and collection management, as well as storage and transportation options. Art logistics has become an extremely lucrative sector of the industry, with industry veterans estimating the value of companies like UOVO in the tens of millions of dollars. According to its website, the company claims to be New York’s “#1 provider of art storage and services with over 650,000 square feet of storage space” with four locations in New York, including one opening this fall in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, which falls under Senator Salazar’s district.
“As industry leaders, we are proud of the unparalleled skill level of our art handlers, and the work they perform with the world’s most recognized museums, collectors, and institutions,” a spokesperson for UOVO’s management told Hyperallergic in an email. “We value our work culture and the direct communication with our colleagues across departments. Ultimately, any decision to introduce third-party representation rests with the affected team members and we will respect their choice.”
“The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) provides for a secret-ballot election process to allow employees to exercise their legal right to vote for or against thirty-party representation,” the spokesperson continued. “We are currently working with the NLRB to schedule a government-supervised election to determine whether our employees wish to be represented by Local 814.”
Earlier this month, a Hyperallergic investigation revealed widespread health and safety violations across the art handling field. Workers interviewed complained that they had long been overworked, underpaid, and tired, often sustaining major injuries while working on the job.
For similar reasons, UOVO’s workers are organizing for affordable family health-care, better safety protections, and a real retirement plan. Currently, art handlers are only provided access to a 401k plan with the company providing no matching funds.
“We’ve been doing this for too long. I’ve coughed up almost $3,000 to take my daughters to the ER,” Ricky Santiago, a truck driver and art handler who has been with UOVO for four years, said in a statement released by the Teamsters. “If you get sick, you are ultimately screwed, and in this industry it’s been that way for too long. That’s why we built a union here. It’s for our all of our futures and for our families’ futures.”
According to Teamsters Local 814, the union has filed its paperwork with 38 workers. It’s currently unclear just how many employees will be eligible to join once voting gets underway.
“Something is happening in the art world now,” said Ide, the local chapter’s president, in a Teamsters press release. “Workers are realizing their value and realizing that they have the power to change their situation for the better.”