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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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He says it’s helped to shape Occupy’s relationship with labor: “There is tension between organized labor and the Occupy movement, and I think the specific situation being so outrageous and so egregious and also so timely has been a lever that has helped to create dialogue between labor and the Occupy movement.”

The resolution of the fight will also shape the direction of a divided industry. Tysh notes that while art handling for major facilities is mostly union, the rest of the art transport industry is mostly unorganized.

An art handler for Phillips de Pury & Company, a nonunion auction company, says he and his co-workers face erratic scheduling, insufficient staffing and unaddressed safety issues (Phillips' Chairman Simon de Pury stars as mentor to contestants in the reality TV show  Work of Art).  This employee—who requested, and was granted, anonymity based on fear of retaliation—says during years of working at Phillips he's requested a raise "several times" but never received one.  

"It's a little bit of a dead-end industry, if you can't find a place that will allow some sort of upward mobility. You could do the same thing for years and maybe not get a raise for it." He says Phillips keeps workers below full-time hours whenever possible to save money. He and his co-workers string together work at at several places in the industry, sometimes working close to 24 hours in consecutive shifts. He has no health insurance. Some of his co-workers at Phillips have crossed the Sotheby's picket line to work as replacement workers for extra cash.

Nine months into the struggle, Gemmill says “it’s not clear really that we are closer to victory.”  

“We’re going to keep up our fight,” says Tysh.  “We’re going to keep up our corporate campaign, and we’re going to keep our campaign in the art world…it’s going to continue to have some serious consequences for the company.” How long will it take?  “I really can’t tell you. I wish I could.”

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He worked as a union organizer for five years. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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