UOVO’s workers with Senator Julia Salazar (center) and supporters from other labor unions in rallying outside the company’s headquarters in Long Island City on October 23 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

On Monday, April 6, Teamsters Local 814 filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the Long Island City-based art facility Uovo Fine Art, accusing it of seizing on the COVID-19 pandemic to retaliate against its pro-union workers. According to the complaint, six workers were singled out and deliberately laid off last week for being outspoken union supporters.

In October of 2019, art handlers at UOVO lost a union vote by a thin margin of three votes. The failed union drive followed an acrimonious dispute between the workers and the company’s management over their demands for job security, health benefits, increased safety, and retirement benefits.

According to the workers, UOVO informed its employees last week that due to the pandemic, all employees would be asked to remain at home, on stand-by, and would be paid until further notice. That did not include seven art handlers who received termination letters from the company. 

“Six of the seven permanently laid off workers played key roles in last year’s effort to win union recognition and improve working conditions,” Local 814 wrote in a statement to Hyperallergic. “Two of them are former Teamster union members — both of whom were known for their early and vocal support of the union as well as their regular wearing of union jackets and union buttons.”

In a statement to Hyperallergic, UOVO denied the allegations, saying, “Perceived support of labor unions was not a factor in our decision and management was also affected.”

UOVO added, “Like many companies we have made the difficult decision to reduce headcount through layoffs. It is common for unions to file all manner of petitions after losing a representation election and we will disprove the allegations in cooperation with the National Labor Relations Board.”

But some of the laid-off workers claim otherwise. “This is clear retaliation,” said fired union supporter Peter Mackay, in a statement. Mackay, who worked at the company as a driver and art handler for more than five years, added, “Just because you wait 6 months and do it under the cover of a global pandemic, doesn’t make it any less obvious. It just makes it more heinous.”

Mackay added that he is now experiencing “coronavirus-like symptoms” and that he is currently seeking medical care after performing work for UOVO during the time period that followed New York State’s ban of non-essential work.

“That shows you what they’re about,” Mackay said. “Not only have I been there longer than most other employees, and not only did I potentially get infected helping the company with a job that they thought was so important that it had to be done even after most other Uovo staff were working from home, but now I’m out of a job for speaking my mind and fighting for a union.”

Henry “David” Martinez, another laid-off worker, was the company’s longest-tenured art handler after working there for more than six years. He was also a vociferous supporter of the union drive.

“The company thinks they’re being clever by waiting to fire union supporters when they think things have died down,” Martinez said.

“But look around, read the papers, things are not dying down,”  Martinez continued. “Workers are fighting back and organizing and striking all over the country.  The days of companies like UOVO and Amazon getting away with violating workers’ rights and retaliating against free speech are numbered.”

UOVO is a lucrative, high-end art logistics company that offers services to clients like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, among other large museums and upscale galleries.

The company is currently planning to expand with a fourth warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for which it received nearly $17 million in subsidies from the New York City Industrial Development Agency. Local 814, together with a group of local politicians led by NY Senator Julia Salazar, have protested these subsidies.

“These new, illegal actions put that issue right back on the table,” Julian Tysh, political coordinator for Local 814, said in a statement.

“Tell me, why a company that breaks the law and targets pro-union workers should be given a multi-million dollar handout from the City?” he asked. “We look forward not only to justice prevailing and these art handlers being reinstated, but also to working with our friends in the legislature and on the City Council to make sure working New Yorkers are no longer subsidizing union-busting.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...