Opulent Sothebys' Appalling Treatment of Its Workers Is a Perfect Symbol of the Out of Touch 1%
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When I arrived at Sotheby's on New York's Upper East Side before a massive art auction on Wednesday night, the three-month-old picket line outside the institution was peopled by a couple dozen Teamsters and supporters there on behalf of locked-out workers. They were using whistles, carrying signs and standing beneath one of those giant inflated rats, getting revved up for the evening ahead.
I turned to one guy at the end of the block, asking, "Has the Occupy Wall Street contingent come yet?"
His eyes widened: "They're coming?"
Yes, they were coming, as were legions of the world's wealthiest, for an auction that would mark the end of the "fall auction season"--a busy period of multimillion-dollar purchases that is one reason Sotheby's claims it won't negotiate with workers.
Some of the new arrivals pulling up to the curb were about to make a record number of bids on $315 million worth of modern art. A few works went for over $60 million a piece that night.
The other new arrivals were there to shame them for doing just that, while middle-class workers were locked out.
At 6pm, a loud contingent of Hunter students poured into the barricaded area, freshly psyched up from their own meeting at their nearby school, bolstering the energy and noise. Then another contingent from NYU and Occupy Wall Street arrived. The sidewalk whistles and drums grew deafening. That was the idea.
Shouts went out as supporters came off buses and out of cabs, chanting, "New York is a union town!"
The signs held aloft multiplied, with huge paintings of workers, angry Mona Lisas and photos of Sotheby's head honchos and their $80,000-a-week salaries. "No Matter How You Frame It, Union-Busting is Bad Taste," read one sign inside a picture frame.
A giant inflatable "fat cat" with a worker in its hand was blown up to accompany the rat, and the chant of "shame" began growing, as did more specific ones:
"Art for the masses, not the upper classes!" "All day, all week, occupy Sotheby's!" "What's disgusting? Union busting!"
Then there were the individual exhortations as patrons began arriving. "Please don't cross this picket line!" or the less-friendly "Go back to the Vineyard!" "Greed is not good!" and my personal favorite, "These artists would have hated you!" (So true, at least most artists.)
From the Beginning
Occupy Wall Street has been focused on the dismaying lock-out of the Teamster-unionized art handlers at Sotheby's from the beginning of the movement.
As the Nation's Jeremy Bercher recently reported, they've been using some creative tactics to demonstrate support, including surreptitiously mingling with the 1 percent and then shaming them:
To support art handlers of the Teamsters’ union, activists from OWS started showing up at Sotheby’s auctions, masquerading as clients. They would suddenly stand up and, instead of offering a bid, disrupt the proceedings with loud denunciations of the company’s labor practices. OWS activists likewise went to a Manhattan restaurant owned by a prominent Sotheby’s board member, clinked on glasses for silence, and then denounced the company as a union-buster. Jason Ide, president of the Teamsters local that represents the art handlers, told the Washington Post that the Occupy tactics surprised and inspired him and his members—so much so that the workers have become regulars at OWS.
OWS has stood in strong solidarity with Verizon workers and other unions, too, but the love for this labor struggle involving only 43 workers has been particularly sustained.
Why? Because, as I overheard someone saying quite succinctly at last night's picket line, what better symbol of the 1 percent's treatment of the rest of us then one of the globe's most opulent and lavish institutions refusing to bargain with its (devoted) workers?