When Daniel Powers first started working as an art handler six years ago, a worker who was tasked to mentor him at his first workplace saw the young art school graduate grow a passion for his new profession, so he took it as his duty to warn him: “Just so you know, this would never be a career. This would never be a job that you can hold for the rest of your life and be able to have a comfortable life and take care of your family.”
Powers, who now works as an art handler and swing driver at the upscale art logistics company UOVO, told this anecdote to a group of co-workers, friends, and representatives of different labor unions who gathered outside the company’s headquarters in Long Island City, New York yesterday, October 23, to show their support for UOVO’s workers ahead of a vote on a union at the company on Friday.
“I took that to heart and started thinking of ways to get out, but this is in my blood,” Powers continued his story. “We studied these paintings that we handle and pack, we’re touching actual history,” he said. “But for the people we work for, it’s no longer art; it’s a stock and a commodity, and it’s something that does nothing but make their pockets fatter and fatter every day.”
Powers and his peers at UOVO officially launched their union drive on October 3, when they announced their intention to organize with Teamsters Local 814, the city’s union for professional movers and art handlers. Days before their announcement, they held a rally outside the company’s headquarters with the participation of New York State Senator Julia Salazar and Local 814’s president, Jason Ide. The two crashed an in-house staff meeting meant to discourage unionization.
Founded in 2013, UOVO is a company that offers packing, installation, collection management, storage, and transportation services for artists, museums, galleries, and more. Among its big clients are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.
Workers at UOVO are asking for the ability to bargain for job security, health benefits, increased safety, and retirement benefits “We started this whole thing because pay is too low, health insurance is not good enough, safety is not good enough, and we’re understaffed,” Powers told Hyperallergic. “We’re lifting things that over time are going to destroy our bodies and we’re doing this for the profit of one or two people.”
UOVO is now planning to open a fourth warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which falls in Senator Salazar’s district. The company has received nearly $17 million in funding from the New York City Industrial Development Agency (NYCIDA) to build the new facility. Last week, the senator — together with city council speaker Corey Johnson and city council members Keith Powers, Antonio Reynoso, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Ben Kallos — sent a letter to UOVO chairman Steve Guttman in which they threatened to pull company’s public funding if it doesn’t “immediately cease and desist [its] campaign of intimidation and misinformation against [its] employees”.
“If we’re going to put that public funding toward economic development, then it should actually be providing economic development for the people, meaning providing quality jobs, and respecting labor rights for all workers,” Salazar told Hyperallergic at yesterday’s rally. “A lot of what is branded as economic development is essentially corporate welfare and massive giveaways up to the scale of millions of dollars to corporations that don’t necessarily need that boost to expand and are not using these subsidies to benefit workers and our neighbors.”
The workers say their attempts to unionize have led to a strenuous relationship between them and the company’s management. “UOVO’s management has been hostile to the idea of sharing power legally with their workers,” said Julian Tysh, an organizer with Teamsters, in a conversation with Hyperallergic at the rally. “They’ve hired the infamous anti-union law firm Littler Mendelson, and they probably spent something in the ballpark of $400,000 on a campaign to misinform, intimidate, and get workers to vote against their own interest of having more legal rights.”
“Rallies of this kind — including the presence of politicians and professional union organizers — are a standard campaign tactic for labor unions, and to be expected prior to a representation election,” a spokesperson for UOVO wrote to Hyperallergic in an email. “As we have throughout this process, we respect the lawful rights of our employees and the Teamsters union,” UOVO’s statement continued. “However, we will not allow our employees to be threatened, intimidated, or coerced. It is their decision whether or not they wish to bring in third-party representation, and we will continue defending their rights under federal law to make an informed choice as part of a free and fair election.”
“The tactics used against us have been brutal, nasty, coercive,” Powers said. “We just want to be treated like the family that they say we actually are. What we’re asking for is just the ability to bargain as equals.”
Their most pressing demand, workers told Hyperallergic, is lower-cost health insurance. The current health insurance plan provided by UOVO places much of the cost of coverage on workers, they say, which affects workers who have children the most. “If we go to the emergency room, that’s a $400 co-pay. It’s not even charged to our deductible, that’s the standard that we have to pay,” said Ricardo Santigo, a father of two who’s been working as an art handler at UOVO for 4 and a half years. “If you have young kids, you can be at the ER three to four times a year,” he said. “You don’t want to be in the predicament that my wife and I are in, where we’re trying to decide if our kid is sick enough to go to the ER.”
Next on the workers’ list of demands is a matching 401K plan. “People want to have something to show for the time they spend here,” said Kevin Spies, an art handler at the company. Spies was one of the company’s first art handlers when was hired five years ago (the company now employs about 40 art handlers). “I’ve seen the company grow a lot in the time I’ve been, but I haven’t seen a lot of change in terms of the dynamic with the employees.”
“We came from mom and pop companies, watching them get bought out by companies like this, and seeing the profits being consolidated more and more to fewer and fewer individuals, while none of the benefits or any of the pay scale ever goes up for any of us,” said Powers. “We just want to attach ourselves to the success of this industry and this company. We don’t ask for anything more than that.”