Sotheby’s Locks Out Union Art Handlers, Again

Sotheby’s auction house closed its doors Saturday to its 43 unionized art handlers, who are members of Teamsters Local 814.

The powerful art auctioneer, which posted more than $680 million in profits last year, is pushing to slash its union workforce and shift the bulk of art handling and auction set-up to temporary and contract workers. Sotheby’s lockout is its second in a decade.

The company wants non-union firms to do the work, but Local 814 says that during the busy selling seasons, inexperienced and overstressed temps would put art worth millions of dollars at risk.

Local 814 members handle art from the auction’s start to finish, retrieving it from client’s homes, packing it in crates, moving it to the auction floor, setting it up for display, and delivering it to auction winners. The pieces can range from giant works by Diego Rivera to an $18 million Chinese vase.

“They’re taking advantage of this anti-union climate, this whole Wisconsin thing, and the weakness of the economy, to come out hard,” said Paul Wepprecht, a 13-year art handler at the company and member of the bargaining team.

According to Wepprecht, Sotheby’s also wants to eliminate seniority for overtime, cut double time and time-and-a-half to the legal minimum, and force workers to waive their right to sue in state or federal court over discrimination.

“They re-wrote every sentence of this contract to the point that it’s a non-union contract,” Wepprecht said. “This would put us on the path to extinction and no one’s going to let that happen.”

DESKILLING

According to Sim Jones, who’s been moving Sotheby’s expensive product for 40 years, the company’s proposals would deskill the work.

“They don’t seem to be interested in any longevity or any experience,” Jones said. “It’s more about pushing and shoving.”

Jones is also concerned about the company’s proposal to eliminate foreman positions from the bargaining unit. In addition to providing longtime staff a way to move up, these positions also give union members more control over when and how they do their jobs.

“They don’t want to let us be as much in control as we have been,” Jones said.

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Sotheby’s hunt for concessions comes after a banner year. But at the bargaining table, the auction giant is claiming hard times.

“Their clients are the top 1 percenters,” Wepprecht said. “This is a segment of the market that is insulated from what the rest of the world is experiencing. These people are not feeling the downturn in the economy and this company’s not feeling it either.”

In stark contrast to the assault at Sotheby’s, rival auction house Christie’s inked a four-year deal with Local 814 in April. That agreement includes healthy economic gains as well as shrinking the use of non-union temps and bringing that work into the bargaining unit.

Sotheby’s negotiations are steered by the virulently anti-union Jackson Lewis law firm.

DÉJÀ VU

The lockout isn’t the first for Sotheby’s art handlers. In 2004 the company shut out workers for three weeks in a similar drive for concessions.

The local, under its former leaders, was unprepared for the confrontation, although veteran workers feel the union held its own regardless.

This time around, under a new, reform leadership, members are confident they will come out on top.

The local has established a strike fund since the reform leaders entered office and members have met for months to work out a contract game plan. They picketed over the weekend and planned a Tuesday rally.

Local 814 President Jason Ide told an art-market magazine that the union plans to “notify clients, dealers, buyers, museums, and other auction houses” about the lockout.

“We’re ready,” Wepprecht said. “We can stay out here for quite a while. We have the resolve now that we didn’t have before.”

Mark Brenner is the former director of Labor Notes.