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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."

 Sotheby’s New York auction house made international headlines last week, selling Edvard Munch's painting “The Scream” for a record $119.9 million. But few stories mentioned what was happening outside the auction: picketing by 150 artists, activists, and locked-out art handlers. 

“Tonight, the irony persists,” said Sotheby’s worker Julian Tysh. “Sotheby’s is selling The Scream – an artful interpretation of human anguish and suffering – and they’re going to profit tremendously tonight, while at the same time they continue to create anguish and suffering among their own workforce.”

Tysh and 41 of his co-workers have been locked out since August 1, a month before Occupy Wall Street first occupied Zuccotti Park.  Among labor stuggles, the lockout has drawn some of the earliest, and longest-running, Occupy support. Occupy's involvement has inspired workers, upped the pressure on Sotheby’s, and amplified media attention  – though it hasn’t yet yielded a victory.

Job security at stake

According to the Teamsters, the key sticking point in negotiations has been job security.  Tysh was part of a “New Directions” slate that ousted the past leaders of Teamsters Local 814 in the union’s 2009 elections. Tysh, now a member of the local’s bargaining committee, says they inherited an otherwise strong contract marred by a crucial weakness: language allowing some work to be done by temporary workers rather than union members. Tysh says that in the past, management honored a “verbal commitment” that the size of the union workforce would stay above 50 people. When management stopped honoring that commitment, bringing in more temporary workers as the number of union members declined, the contract offered little recourse.

Sotheby's did not respond to a request for comment, but a company spokesperson  told Bloomberg in December that the lockout was "the last thing we wanted."

While both the union members and the temp workers are predominately black or Latino, the temps are much younger than the union members. Their wages and benefits are much worse. Tysh charges that Sotheby’s has been exploiting the contract's weakness to replace union art handlers with a cheap, constantly insecure workforce: “The newer generation, because of this revolving door, has only seen six months of a job and then they’ve been back on the street.”

In negotiations, the Teamsters proposed to restrict Sotheby’s ability to replace them with temps. Sotheby’s proposed to expand it. “This is not about economics,” says Tysh, “because this is a very profitable company. If they wanted to bargain for economic concessions, they would have.” Rather, he charges, Sotheby’s mounted “a strong-arm attack from the very beginning: that the union had to accept these terms that would cripple the union’s power on the job, or else we’d have to suffer.”

Bloomberg reported that a Sotheby's filing showed that the company issued its chief executive $4.25 million in 2011 in "performance share units," which vest over four years if he meets "performance goals."

As Mike Elk has  reported, in recent years employers have increasingly turned to lockouts: refusing to let union members work until they accept contract concessions or dissolve their union. For Sotheby’s workers, Tysh says that’s meant “tremendous economic hardship,” especially since the termination of their health insurance January 1.  According to Tysh, one of his co-workers had a wife on life support when Sotheby's cut off their insurance.

Tysh says the lockout also takes an emotional toll: “You get a lot of your sense of identity, and your sense of pride as a human being, from the work you do, and it’s hard to call yourself an art handler if you haven’t handled any art in nine months.”

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