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Sotheby’s Art Handlers' Lockout Enters Tenth Month As Auction House Makes Record Sales

“Sotheby’s is selling The Scream–an artful interpretation of human anguish and suffering–while they continue to create anguish and suffering among their own workforce."

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Labor and Occupy push back

Pickets like Wednesday’s have become a common sight, supplemented with more disruptive tactics. Some invited guests at a February 29 reception for the Whitney Biennial—of which Sotheby's is a major sponsor—brought Teamsters and other activists along as their guests. Once inside, in the middle of the event, workers and occupiers dropped banners (including "Quit Sotheby's") and began a “Mic chec,” with a crowd repeating speeches condemning Sotheby's.  During a November auction, Occupy activists and members of other unions – but not Sotheby's employees – sat down and were arrested for refusing to leave the building.

Those arrests illustrate one of the dynamics in play: As amended by Taft-Hartley and interpreted by courts, federal labor law significantly restricts the ability of workers to demonstrate en masse or disrupt production without risking crippling fees or injunctions against their union.  Occupy activists don’t face the same restrictions.

Tysh says the occupiers have “on their own, taken the initiative to engage in a wide range of tactics…we thank them tremendously for that.”  

Speaking for himself, Aaron Gemmill, an activist with Occupy Wall Street’s Arts & Labor group (technically a sub-group of the Arts & Culture Working Group), said there’s room to take that freedom further: “We have some flexibility as non-organized people to act outside of that legal framework, but I'd like to see it get pushed a little...I would like to see us doing more bold intervention.”

Tysh says union members are also taking "the type of militant action that you haven’t seen in the labor movement in a long time...We haven’t asked our members to willfully break any laws, so what we’ve done has been within the confines of what we can do, but at the same time it has been pushing the envelope.”

The Teamsters and their allies have also targeted Sotheby’s on other fronts. The union, and the Change to Win federation (with which it’s affiliated), have raised questions about Sotheby’s governance, most recently in a  letter to shareholders from the CTW Investment Group.  The letter charges that since Sotheby’s went public, there’s been little change in the composition of its Board, which remains stacked with allies of its president. Gemmill credits union scrutiny with forcing the resignation of Rupert Murdoch’s son, James Murdoch, from the Board.

Sotheby's annual meeting will be held tomorrow. CTW Investment Group is urging investors to vote against the re-election of three board members, including Diana Taylor. Taylor is the girlfriend of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and also a board member of Brookfield Properties, which owns Zuccotti Park, from which Occupy was evicted in November. In a December confrontation with Occupy activists and Teamsters, Taylor  threatened to quit Sotheby's board if its CEO "accedes to any of your demands."

In February, students and workers protested a meeting of the University of Vermont's Board of Trustees, which includes Sotheby's Chief Executive William Ruprecht. The same month, anonymous activists created a prank website claiming that the Whitney Biennial was cutting ties to Sotheby's. In April, union activists in Cambodia held a press conference tying the lockout to Sotheby's refusal to return an allegedly looted 10th-century Cambodian statue. On May 1, the editors of two art blogs and a group of artists (including "Hope" artist Shepard Fairey) launched a  petition to Sotheby’s that has drawn international art world support.

Whither art industry?

Gemmill says Arts & Labor activists have connected with the Sotheby's struggle in particular because "rather than kind of abstract arguments for economic justice, it is really is specific to an industry that we all work in and understand, and feel potentially affected by in a direct way.”

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