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June 2012, Week 1

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Lessons from the Victory at Sotheby's 
by Gary Roland
Waging Nonviolence 
June 3, 2012

http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/06/lessons-from-the-victory-at-sothebys/#more-17375

Last September 22, when Occupy Wall Street was just
five days old, labor activists from the encampment at
Zuccotti Park disrupted an auction at Sotheby's in
support of the locked out art handlers of Teamsters
Local 814. This action began a collaboration that
lasted nine months, eventually leading to the
ratification of a new three-year contract that ended
the lockout on May 31. George Miranda, president of the
Teamsters Joint Council 16, said, "These hard-working
men and women will go home today and tell their
families that they got their job back, and that's what
the Teamsters call a victory."

On the management side of the battle was a premier
union-busting law firm, Jackson Lewis, which
represented a board comprised of some of the most
wealthy and politically influential people in the
world. On the other side were 42 workers, many of them
artists themselves, who loved handling some of the most
important art objects in existence and who refused to
allow their jobs to be turned into low-paying,
temporary contract work. They were joined by OWS
activists and the Teamsters Joint Council to struggle
toward a victory that some felt was improbable from the
outset. The heavy lifting of this campaign, though, was
borne by the workers' family members, who had to
tighten their belts and go without during the dispute.

Having been a part of the campaign from the OWS side, I
had a chance to see close up how certain strategic
decisions led to its success and to draw some valuable
lessons from it.

Lesson 1: Choose allies carefully

When the OWS Labor Outreach Committee first met with
representatives of the art handlers in the early days
of the occupation, OWS activists were busy trying to
reach out to potential institutional allies in New
York. At that time, it seemed like every 15 minutes a
new organization was approaching OWS for help, and it
was clear that we needed to bring labor unions into our
growing coalition. A worldwide day of solidarity was
being planned by the Indignados in Spain for October
15, and many OWS organizers thought that if labor were
to throw its weight behind that, we would have a shot
at spreading our movement across the country. At the
time, most unions didn't seem to know what to make of
us, and they didn't want to lend their support to a
protest that could be gone in a matter of weeks.

We were not looking to throw ourselves into just any
labor dispute. There were certain criteria that we were
looking to satisfy. It had to be a dispute that we
could win, one that had symbolic resonance with the
message we were trying to spread and one that would
generate interest in the news media. Movements must
bring about victories, so it is important to not only
go after broad, transformational visions but also to
choose shorter, more easily achievable campaigns.
Helping to get 42 workers back to work seemed entirely
reasonable, and the benefits of bringing a large and
influential union like the Teamsters into the fold were
obvious.

The art handlers' story was compelling, and a fitting
metaphor for the realities that we all face in a
society run by the 1 percent. Our current system
removes the humanity from us all and turns us into
interchangeable commodities. We are no longer fathers,
mothers, brothers or sisters; we become consumers,
workers, bosses and debtors. Sotheby's is a company
that drives the ultimate luxury market, taking art
objects that are some of the most profound expressions
of human culture and selling them as personal property
to wealthy buyers. Rather than being held in common for
all to admire, they're often kept in private vaults and
admired only for their price tag.

This dispute pitted middle-class workers who wanted to
preserve the dignity of their jobs against some of the
wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. The
bosses put up a hard fight, forcing us to sustain our
enthusiasm over a long campaign -- which brings us to
our next lesson.

Lesson 2: Plan for the long run (but don't plan too
much)

It is important to recognize that a successful campaign
may take longer than you expected, and you must pace
yourself so you don't burn out. A movement's momentum
can wax and wane with changing circumstances beyond its
control. On November 9 of last year, we held a picket
in front of the Sotheby's auction house, where over 400
OWS and union activists joined the art handlers to try
and block the doors to an auction. Sotheby's could not
have foreseen when they originally locked the workers
out that this dispute would grow to attract so much
support, both in New York and internationally. OWS was
also flying high on its own early enthusiasm; anything
seemed possible, and there were rumors that a deal must
be close. But only a few days later, disaster struck in
the form of the NYPD's paramilitary raid on Zuccotti
Park in the early morning hours of November 15.
Suddenly, we didn't feel so unstoppable, and enthusiasm
waned.

At the time, we were unable to accept the fact that we
were entering a new phase, one requiring new tactics.
It's important when planning a campaign to realize that
the environment in which you will be acting is not
static. Your opponent will react and change the nature
of the conflict, and you'll have to adapt by finding
new ways in which to act.

Soon, the news media had declared OWS dead, and it
became harder both to draw people into the streets and
to attract coverage when we did. Still, we had a
responsibility to the families of the workers to see
this campaign through. So we changed it up. No longer
did we rely on auction disruptions or picket lines as
the sole means of communicating our message. OWS groups
like Occupy Museums and Arts & Labor dropped banners on
crowded nights at the Museum of Modern Art -- which has
strong ties with Sotheby's -- and held general
assemblies underneath. We put up provocative websites
and occupied boardrooms with performance art. We
created free art fairs and circulated petitions. Most
importantly, we realized that in order to continue to
tell the story of the 42 workers, we would have to do
so in creative ways that the media couldn't resist
talking about.

It's also important that activists plan to conserve the
energy they accumulate when things are building so as
not to burn out. They also need to keep enough
flexibility in their plans to allow them to innovate
and try new things. This brings me to the last point:

Lesson 3: Horizontality breeds innovation

I can't tell you how many times during this campaign
that I was faced with a problem that I wasn't sure how
to solve -- and then someone else would simply walk up
to me with a solution. In a group working together as a
non-hierarchical collective, if you take time to
establish a shared intention both early and clearly,
amazing things can happen. The intention of the
Sotheby's campaign was, first and foremost, to get the
42 workers back to work, and that focused our efforts.
When a collective decides on an intention like this, it
is not like an edict or command handed down by the
leader; rather, it is owned by all of the participants.
Each member of the collective is then forced to
realize, first, that they are each only one part of the
puzzle and, second, that they each have a
responsibility to help develop creative responses to
challenges the group faces. A collective that shares an
intention becomes extremely resilient, and the
collective is no longer dependent on the actions of any
one leader to move forward.

Although I was involved in some critical decisions at
important junctures in this campaign, at times, other
responsibilities took me away from the campaign.
Whenever that happened, there was someone from the
collective to keep pushing it toward the intended goal.
This capacity for rejuvenation, as well as innovation,
gives me hope that our movement might actually
contribute to solving the multiple existential crises
that face the planet. Shared intentions foster
synchroncity. Just as the intention of supporting the
art handlers' struggle brought many different groups
with different tactics to a shared victory, I think
there's hope that people everywhere, working through
ties of solidarity, can lead us all into a better
world.

* * * 

Gary Roland was the treasurer of the 2011
Bloombergville occupation, helped to form OWS Legal
Activist Working Group and OWS Facilitation, and was
Peacekeeper Affinity Team Leader/Police Liaison for
Stop the Machine at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C.
Gary is a member of NYABC, NYCGA, #150 & #12M
Coordinating Committee, & #OPESR. Follow him on Twitter
at @nyccamp.

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