Sotheby’s workers claim victory, head back to work

Art handlers in New York City who had been locked out by Sotheby’s, one of the world’s largest art auction houses, announced on May 31 that after a 10-month lock out, they had reached a deal with the company and would be returning to work. The new contract provides for a series of 1 percent raises over the life of the new three-year contract and preserves existing health care and retirement benefits. The new contract also does not include work-rule changes sought by the company to weaken the workers’ long-term bargaining power.

After negotiations on a new contract broke down last summer, Sotheby’s locked out 43 of its art handlers who belong to Teamsters Local 814. In addition to seeking health care and retirement benefit concessions, the company wanted changes to the contract that would allow it to replace 12 senior workers when they retire with temporary workers.

Had the workers conceded to this demand, the number of union members on the job would have been reduced by nearly 30 percent and much more of the work would have done by non-union temporary workers, severely weakening the workers’ future bargaining position and making it more difficult to enforce the contract. As a result, the workers said, “no deal.”

The company, sensing that it had an opportunity to weaken, and perhaps bust, the union, initiated a lockout. The idea that Sotheby’s sought to weaken or even bust the union was reinforced by its hiring of Jackson Lewis, the country’s leading union avoidance law firm, to advise it during negotiations and the lockout.

Instead of sitting back, drawing unemployment checks, and hoping for the best, members of Local 814 conducted an energetic corporate campaign that featured non-violent, direct action against Sotheby’s and its board members and executives.

The union’s latest action took place in May when Sotheby’s shareholders gathered for their annual meeting. Attendees had to cross a Teamster picket line to enter the meeting, and once inside, they heard a Teamster shareholder call for the ouster of two board members, Michael Sovern and Diana Taylor.

Last October, a few months after the lockout began, five wives of Local 184 members, confronted Taylor at a meeting of the philanthropic New York Women’s Foundation, which Taylor chairs. They asked why she supported Sotheby’s effort to starve its workers into accepting an unfair contract.

“As chair of the Women’s Foundation, Diana Taylor should support their mission of working for economic security and justice for women,” said Pat Walsh, wife of Local 814 member John Walsh in a statement about the meeting. “So why, as a board member of Sotheby’s Auction House, does she condone Sotheby’s throwing hardworking New Yorkers out on the street without paychecks? Our families rely on these good jobs and benefits.”

In between, that event and the May shareholders meeting, Local 814 staged numerous actions to call out Sotheby’s, including the disruptions of auctions and traveling overseas to win international support for the locked out workers.

They also won the support of some New York artists and art collectors who drafted a petition urging Sotheby’s to treat its workers fairly. They collected more than 2,000 signatures on it.

Occupy Wall Street played a key role in the Sotheby’s workers’ struggle. Occupy activists took part in union demonstrations, picketed with Local 814 members, and participated in a number of creative disruptions and displays of support for the workers

Sotheby’s recently signaled that it was ready to end the lockout when it fired Jackson Lewis and replaced it with Proskauer, an international corporate law firm. Proskauer’s attorney Bob Batterman, who represented the National Football League in last year’s negotiations with the National Football League’s Players Association, took over negotiations for Sotheby’s.

While, the company was seeking to weaken the workers’ bargaining power by increasing its temporary staff, the union was trying to make more of the art handler positions permanent, full-time positions. The two sides appear to have tabled that issue for the time being and keep full-time staffing at its current level.

Nevertheless, the locked out workers thought that the new contract contained sufficient job protections and voted overwhelmingly to return to work.

“People are ready to go back to work,” said Local 814 President Jason Ide to Labor Notes. “After 10 months we fought our way back to decent job standards.”

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