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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.

Photo Credit: Sarah Seltzer


 Last September 22, when Occupy Wall Street was just five days old, labor activists from the encampment at Zuccotti Park disrupted an auction at Sotheby’s in support of the locked out art handlers of Teamsters Local 814. This action began a collaboration that lasted nine months, eventually leading to the ratification of a new three-year contract that ended the lockout on May 31. George Miranda, president of the Teamsters Joint Council 16, said, “These hard-working men and women will go home today and tell their families that they got their job back, and that’s what the Teamsters call a victory.”

On the management side of the battle was a premier union-busting law firm, Jackson Lewis, which represented a board comprised of some of the most wealthy and politically influential people in the world. On the other side were 42 workers, many of them artists themselves, who loved handling some of the most important art objects in existence and who refused to allow their jobs to be turned into low-paying, temporary contract work. They were joined by OWS activists and the Teamsters Joint Council to struggle toward a victory that some felt was improbable from the outset. The heavy lifting of this campaign, though, was borne by the workers’ family members, who had to tighten their belts and go without during the dispute.

Having been a part of the campaign from the OWS side, I had a chance to see close up how certain strategic decisions led to its success and to draw some valuable lessons from it.

Lesson 1: Choose allies carefully

When the OWS Labor Outreach Committee first met with representatives of the art handlers in the early days of the occupation, OWS activists were busy trying to reach out to potential institutional allies in New York. At that time, it seemed like every 15 minutes a new organization was approaching OWS for help, and it was clear that we needed to bring labor unions into our growing coalition. A worldwide day of solidarity was being planned by the Indignados in Spain for October 15, and many OWS organizers thought that if labor were to throw its weight behind that, we would have a shot at spreading our movement across the country. At the time, most unions didn’t seem to know what to make of us, and they didn’t want to lend their support to a protest that could be gone in a matter of weeks.

We were not looking to throw ourselves into just  any labor dispute. There were certain criteria that we were looking to satisfy. It had to be a dispute that we could win, one that had symbolic resonance with the message we were trying to spread and one that would generate interest in the news media. Movements must bring about victories, so it is important to not only go after broad, transformational visions but also to choose shorter, more easily achievable campaigns. Helping to get 42 workers back to work seemed entirely reasonable, and the benefits of bringing a large and influential union like the Teamsters into the fold were obvious.

The art handlers’ story was compelling, and a fitting metaphor for the realities that we all face in a society run by the 1 percent. Our current system removes the humanity from us all and turns us into interchangeable commodities. We are no longer fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters; we become consumers, workers, bosses and debtors. Sotheby’s is a company that drives the ultimate luxury market, taking art objects that are some of the most profound expressions of human culture and selling them as personal property to wealthy buyers. Rather than being held in common for all to admire, they’re often kept in private vaults and admired only for their price tag.

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