Sotheby’s and Union Art Handlers Finally Resolve Contract Dispute, But at What Cost?
After a 10-month-long lockout of Sotheby's union art handlers that had the support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, an agreement has been reached.
Teamsters Local 814 announced Thursday that they had ended their contract dispute with auction house management, with workers voting to approve a three-year deal that raises workers' salaries 1 percent a year, lifts starting salaries to $18.50, and maintain workers' benefits. It also protects all of the union jobs that Sotheby's had sought to replace with temporary, non-union hires.
Like Us on Facebook
"The most important thing is these guys are going back to work," said Jason Ide, president of the union which represents the 42 workers. "They love being art handlers. They got into this line of work because they care about art and taking care of it."
Last August, Sotheby's, the world's largest auction house, had locked out 42 art handlers after their contract expired in July. As Flavorwire explained, they had called to cut pay, hours, and pensions; eliminate health benefits; and replace full-time employees with temporary, unskilled workers (the latter of which was achieved).
Sotheby's original deal was criticized because, as Flavorwire noted, other staff members have received raises, company sales are up this year and CEO William Ruprecht's salary has more than doubled in 2010, peaking at $6 million.
The house's cut on a single good day at Sotheby's could pay the CEO's salary ($6 million), and the entire union contract, which is just over half of that ($3.2 million), with a few million to spare (and another 364 days of the year leftover).
"Tonight, the irony persists," said Sotheby's worker Julian Tysh to Alternet the day the Munch masterpiece was sold. "Sotheby's is selling The Scream - an artful interpretation of human anguish and suffering - and they're going to profit tremendously tonight, while at the same time they continue to create anguish and suffering among their own workforce."
Crain's New York detailed the support that the Occupy movement provided:
The lockout, which began a month before Occupy Wall Street, quickly became a cause célèbre for the protesters. They picketed outside the auction house, conducted actions inside that sought to disrupt sales, visited board members at their homes and places of business and targeted the auction house's partners.
During this time, Diana Taylor, Mayor Bloomberg's girlfriend and a member of Sotheby's board, told some of the art handlers as captured in a YouTube video, "I have one thing to say to you. I have had one conversation with [Sotheby's President] Bill Ruprecht about this, and I told him that if he accedes to any of your demands, I will resign immediately," she said. "That's all I have to say."
A breakthrough for the lockout -- the longest in the company's history -- came last month when Sotheby's replaced its law firm, Jackson Lewis, with Proskauer. Bob Batterman, who represented the NFL during its lockout of players last year, took over the negotiations.
Batterman said that Sotheby won more flexible scheduling and overtime provisions in the deal.
Steven Thrasher at The Village Voice summed up the deal:
Still, as happy as the Teamsters seem to be about the contract in the Crain's article, the resolution came at a very high price. It's not the easiest thing in the world to raise a family in New York City off of the wages their workers were making, and they went without their salary at all for 10 whole months.
And, though they are getting a 1 percent increase in pay each year, in real market dollars in this city, that's no effective raise at all. Consider that if you're lucky enough to have a rent stabilized apartment (and rent is many New Yorkers' primary expense), the Rent Guidelines Board most recently approved 3.75 percent increases on one year leases and 7.25 percent increases on two year leases. So a 1 percent pay raise would be a net loss there. Similarly, the Consumer Price Index has risen 2.3 percent over the past year, meaning you're paying 2.3 percent more on average for things that most people by -- again, a net loss with this contract in terms of money in the pockets of workers.
At least those art handlers have their jobs back from Sotheby's. But they had to fight awful hard to get back to where they started, and have done so at great personal financial cost.