Why We Should Support Sotheby’s Locked Out Art Handlers

As an 1895 version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream heads off to Sotheby’s today, it could bring in as much as a record-breaking $200 million. Sotheby’s, the world’s largest auction house, is doing better than ever, with profits on the rise. And yet, the unionized professionals who handle the art are out of work. They’ve been locked out since July 29 of last year, after refusing to accept an unfair contract from Sotheby’s that called to cut pay, hours, and pensions; eliminate health benefits; and replace full-time employees with temporary, unskilled workers. For the people who have spent years — and some, decades — lending their specialized skills to handling some of the world’s most precious artifacts, it wasn’t acceptable.

Over the past nine months, Sotheby’s has replaced 43 members of the Teamsters Local 814 Union with said temps. Art handlers’ work includes packing and shipping the art, as well as installing and dismantling exhibitions. It requires a specialized and experienced approach, but Sotheby’s seems fine with taking the risk of using non-professionals and spending extra money on security. Their motivations aren’t purely financial. While the art handlers are being snubbed, 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; It’s not exactly about cutting corners during a tough economy. The contract was aimed at outmoding unionized professionals, underscored by the fact that Sotheby’s has hired Jackson Lewis, a law firm dubbed by the AFL-CIO as the “number one union buster in America.” Negotiations with the art handlers have stopped. Not only does this endanger the future of the art handling profession, the leading art auction house is setting a dismal example to other auction houses and cultural institutions by exploiting these workers and positioning itself so transparently against unionized labor.

Yesterday, in honor of May Day, Art Fag City’s Paddy Johnson spearheaded a petition — Sotheby’s: Offer Your Art Handlers A Fair Contract — that has already gathered more than 1,000 signatures, including those of artists Marilyn Minter, AA Bronson, and Shepard Fairey, as well as collectors, curators, art writers, and cultural workers. There’s something almost anachronistic in seeing a giant inflatable rat shaming Sotheby’s union-crushing antics at picket lines just outside the auction house. Yet, this is really happening. What can you do to get involved? Sign the petition, don’t sell or buy through Sotheby’s, don’t take their sponsorship, and pass the word on.

Photo credit: Jason Ide