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3 Lessons From the Victory for Sotheby's Workers

In a collaboration that lasted 9 months, Occupy Wall Street worked with locked-out art handlers at auction house Sotheby's to win a new contract--which they won on May 31.

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This dispute pitted middle-class workers who wanted to preserve the dignity of their jobs against some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. The bosses put up a hard fight, forcing us to sustain our enthusiasm over a long campaign — which brings us to our next lesson.

Lesson 2: Plan for the long run (but don’t plan too much)

It is important to recognize that a successful campaign may take longer than you expected, and you must pace yourself so you don’t burn out. A movement’s momentum can wax and wane with changing circumstances beyond its control. On November 9 of last year, we held a picket in front of the Sotheby’s auction house, where over 400 OWS and union activists joined the art handlers to try and block the doors to an auction. Sotheby’s could not have foreseen when they originally locked the workers out that this dispute would grow to attract so much support, both in New York and internationally. OWS was also flying high on its own early enthusiasm; anything seemed possible, and there were rumors that a deal must be close. But only a few days later, disaster struck in the form of the NYPD’s paramilitary raid on Zuccotti Park in the early morning hours of November 15. Suddenly, we didn’t feel so unstoppable, and enthusiasm waned.

At the time, we were unable to accept the fact that we were entering a new phase, one requiring new tactics. It’s important when planning a campaign to realize that the environment in which you will be acting is not static. Your opponent will react and change the nature of the conflict, and you’ll have to adapt by finding new ways in which to act.

Soon, the news media had declared OWS dead, and it became harder both to draw people into the streets and to attract coverage when we did. Still, we had a responsibility to the families of the workers to see this campaign through. So we changed it up. No longer did we rely on auction disruptions or  picket linesas the sole means of communicating our message. OWS groups like Occupy Museums and Arts & Labor dropped banners on crowded nights at the Museum of Modern Art — which has  strong ties with Sotheby’s — and held general assemblies underneath. We put up  provocative websites and occupied boardrooms with performance art. We created free art fairs and circulated petitions. Most importantly, we realized that in order to continue to tell the story of the 42 workers, we would have to do so in creative ways that the media couldn’t resist talking about.

It’s also important that activists plan to conserve the energy they accumulate when things are building so as not to burn out. They also need to keep enough flexibility in their plans to allow them to innovate and try new things. This brings me to the last point:

Lesson 3: Horizontality breeds innovation

I can’t tell you how many times during this campaign that I was faced with a problem that I wasn’t sure how to solve — and then someone else would simply walk up to me with a solution. In a group working together as a non-hierarchical collective, if you take time to establish a shared intention both early and clearly, amazing things can happen. The intention of the Sotheby’s campaign was, first and foremost, to get the 42 workers back to work, and that focused our efforts. When a collective decides on an intention like this, it is not like an edict or command handed down by the leader; rather, it is owned by all of the participants. Each member of the collective is then forced to realize, first, that they are each only one part of the puzzle and, second, that they each have a responsibility to help develop creative responses to challenges the group faces. A collective that shares an intention becomes extremely resilient, and the collective is no longer dependent on the actions of any one leader to move forward.

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