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PORTSIDE  May 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE May 2012, Week 2

Subject:

Occupy's Lockout: Sotheby's Struggle Enters Tenth Month

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Occupy's Lockout: Sotheby's Struggle Enters Tenth Month

by Josh Eidelson

Working in These Times
In These Times

May 7, 2012

http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/13150/sothebys_lockout_teamsters_occupy_wall_street_art_handlers/

Sotheby's New York auction house made international
headlines last week, selling Edvard Much's painting "The
Scream" for a record $119.9 million. But few stories
mentioned what was happening outside the auction: picketing
by 150 artists, activists, and locked-out art handlers.

"Tonight, the irony persists," said Sotheby's worker Julian
Tysh. "Sotheby's is selling a copy of 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."

Tysh and 41 of his co-workers have been locked out since
August 1, a month before Occupy Wall Street first occupied
Zuccotti Park.  Among labor struggles, the lockout has drawn
some of the earliest, and longest-running, Occupy support.
Occupy's involvement has inspired workers, upped the
pressure on Sotheby's, and amplified media attention  -
though it hasn't yet yielded a victory.

Job security at stake

According to the Teamsters, the key sticking point in
negotiations has been job security.  Tysh was part of a "New
Directions" slate that ousted the past leaders of Teamsters
Local 814 in the union's 2009 elections. Tysh, now a member
of the local's bargaining committee, says they inherited an
otherwise strong contract marred by a crucial weakness:
language allowing some work to be done by temporary workers
rather than union members. Tysh says that in the past,
management honored a "verbal commitment" that the size of
the union workforce would stay above 50 people. When
management stopped honoring that commitment, bringing in
more temporary workers as the number of union members
declined, the contract offered little recourse.

Sotheby's did not respond to a request for comment, but a
company spokesperson told Bloomberg in December that the
lockout was "the last thing we wanted."

While both the union members and the temp workers are
predominately black or Latino, the temps are much younger
than the union members. Their wages and benefits are much
worse. Tysh charges that Sotheby's has been exploiting the
contract's weakness to replace union art handlers with a
cheap, constantly insecure workforce: "The newer generation,
because of this revolving door, has only seen six months of
a job and then they've been back on the street."

In negotiations, the Teamsters proposed to restrict
Sotheby's ability to replace them with temps. Sotheby's
proposed to expand it. "This is not about economics," says
Tysh, "because this is a very profitable company. If they
wanted to bargain for economic concessions, they would
have." Rather, he charges, Sotheby's mounted "a strong-arm
attack from the very beginning: that the union had to accept
these terms that would cripple the union's power on the job,
or else we'd have to suffer."

Bloomberg reported that a Sotheby's filing showed that the
company issued its chief executive $4.25 million in 2011 in
"performance share units," which vest over four years if he
meets "performance goals."

As Mike Elk has reported, in recent years employers have
increasingly turned to lockouts: refusing to let union
members work until they accept contract concessions or
dissolve their union. For Sotheby's workers, Tysh says
that's meant "tremendous economic hardship," especially
since the termination of their health insurance January 1.
According to Tysh, one of his co-workers had a wife on life
support when Sotheby's cut off their insurance.

Tysh says the lockout also takes an emotional toll: "You get
a lot of your sense of identity, and your sense of pride as
a human being, from the work you do, and it's hard to call
yourself an art handler if you haven't handled any art in
nine months."

Labor and Occupy push back

Pickets like Wednesday's have become a common sight,
supplemented with more disruptive tactics. Some invited
guests at a February 29 reception for the Whitney Biennial -
of which Sotheby's is a major sponsor - brought Teamsters
and other activists along as their guests. Once inside, in
the middle of the event, workers and occupiers dropped
banners (including "Quit Sotheby's") and began a "Mic chec,"
with a crowd repeating speeches condemning Sotheby's. During
a November auction, Occupy activists and members of other
unions - but not Sotheby's employees - sat down and were
arrested for refusing to leave the building.

Those arrests illustrate one of the dynamics in play: As
amended by Taft-Hartley and interpreted by courts, federal
labor law significantly restricts the ability of workers to
demonstrate en masse or disrupt production without risking
crippling fees or injunctions against their union.  Occupy
activists don't face the same restrictions.

Tysh says the occupiers have "on their own, taken the
initiative to engage in a wide range of tactics...we thank
them tremendously for that."

Speaking for himself, Aaron Gemmill, an activist with Occupy
Wall Street's Arts & Labor group (technically a sub-group of
the Arts & Culture Working Group), said there's room to take
that freedom further: "We have some flexibility as non-
organized people to act outside of that legal framework, but
I'd like to see it get pushed a little...I would like to see
us doing more bold intervention."

Tysh says union members are also taking "the type of
militant action that you haven't seen in the labor movement
in a long time...We haven't asked our members to willfully
break any laws, so what we've done has been within the
confines of what we can do, but at the same time it has been
pushing the envelope."

The Teamsters and their allies have also targeted Sotheby's
on other fronts. The union, and the Change to Win federation
(with which it's affiliated), have raised questions about
Sotheby's governance, most recently in a letter to
shareholders from the CTW Investment Group.  The letter
charges that since Sotheby's went public, there's been
little change in the composition of its Board, which remains
stacked with allies of its president. Gemmill credits union
scrutiny with forcing the resignation of Rupert Murdoch's
son, James Murdoch, from the Board.

Sotheby's annual meeting will be held tomorrow. CTW
Investment Group is urging investors to vote against the re-
election of three board members, including Diana Taylor.
Taylor is the girlfriend of New York City Mayor Michael
Bloomberg and also a board member of Brookfield Properties,
which owns Zuccotti Park, from which Occupy was evicted in
November. In a December confrontation with Occupy activists
and Teamsters, Taylor threatened to quit Sotheby's board if
its CEO "accedes to any of your demands."

In February, students and workers protested a meeting of the
University of Vermont's Board of Trustees, which includes
Sotheby's Chief Executive William Ruprecht. The same month,
anonymous activists created a prank website claiming that
the Whitney Biennial was cutting ties to Sotheby's. In
April, union activists in Cambodia held a press conference
tying the lockout to Sotheby's refusal to return an
allegedly looted 10th-century Cambodian statue. On May 1,
the editors of two art blogs and a group of artists
(including "Hope" artist Shepard Fairey) launched a petition
to Sotheby's that has drawn international art world support.

Whither art industry?

Gemmill says Arts & Labor activists have connected with the
Sotheby's struggle in particular because "rather than kind
of abstract arguments for economic justice, it is really is
specific to an industry that we all work in and understand,
and feel potentially affected by in a direct way."

He says it's helped to shape Occupy's relationship with
labor: "There is tension between organized labor and the
Occupy movement, and I think the specific situation being so
outrageous and so egregious and also so timely has been a
lever that has helped to create dialogue between labor and
the Occupy movement."

The resolution of the fight will also shape the direction of
a divided industry. Tysh notes that while art handling for
major facilities is mostly union, the rest of the art
transport industry is mostly unorganized.

An art handler for Phillips de Pury & Company, a nonunion
auction company, says he and his co-workers face erratic
scheduling, insufficient staffing and unaddressed safety
issues (Phillips' Chairman Simon de Pury stars as mentor to
contestants in the reality TV show Work of Art).  This
employee - who requested, and was granted, anonymity based
on fear of retaliation - says during years of working at
Phillips he's requested a raise "several times" but never
received one.

"It's a little bit of a dead-end industry, if you can't find
a place that will allow some sort of upward mobility. You
could do the same thing for years and maybe not get a raise
for it." He says Phillips keeps workers below full-time
hours whenever possible to save money. He and his co-workers
string together work at several places in the industry,
sometimes working close to 24 hours in consecutive shifts.
He has no health insurance. Some of his co-workers at
Phillips have crossed the Sotheby's picket line to work as
replacement workers for extra cash.

Nine months into the struggle, Gemmill says "it's not clear
really that we are closer to victory."

"We're going to keep up our fight," says Tysh.  "We're going
to keep up our corporate campaign, and we're going to keep
our campaign in the art world...it's going to continue to
have some serious consequences for the company." How long
will it take?  "I really can't tell you. I wish I could."

[Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In
These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.
After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a
union organizer for five years.  His website is
http://www.josheidelson.com ]

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