News & Politics

Opulent Sothebys' Appalling Treatment of Its Workers Is a Perfect Symbol of the Out of Touch 1%

What better symbol of the 1 percent's treatment of the 99 then one of the world's most opulent institutions refusing to bargain with its workers?

When I arrived at Sotheby's on New York's Upper East Side before a massive art auction on Wednesday night, the three-month-old picket line outside the institution was peopled by a couple dozen Teamsters and supporters there on behalf of locked-out workers. They were using whistles, carrying signs and standing beneath one of those giant inflated rats, getting revved up for the evening ahead.

I turned to one guy at the end of the block, asking, "Has the Occupy Wall Street contingent come yet?" 

His eyes widened: "They're coming?"

Yes, they were coming, as were legions of the world's wealthiest, for an auction that would mark the end of the "fall auction season"--a busy period of multimillion-dollar purchases that is one reason Sotheby's claims it won't negotiate with workers.

Some of the new arrivals pulling up to the curb were about to make a record number of bids on $315 million worth of modern art. A few works went for over $60 million a piecethat night.

The other new arrivals were there to shame them for doing just that, while middle-class workers were locked out.

At 6pm, a loud contingent of Hunter students poured into the barricaded area, freshly psyched up from their own meeting at their nearby school, bolstering the energy and noise. Then another contingent from NYU and Occupy Wall Street arrived. The sidewalk whistles and drums grew deafening. That was the idea.

Shouts went out as supporters came off buses and out of cabs, chanting, "New York is a union town!"

The signs held aloft multiplied, with huge paintings of workers, angry Mona Lisas and photos of Sotheby's head honchos and their $80,000-a-week salaries. "No Matter How You Frame It, Union-Busting is Bad Taste," read one sign inside a picture frame. 

A giant inflatable "fat cat" with a worker in its hand was blown up to accompany the rat, and the chant of "shame" began growing, as did more specific ones:

"Art for the masses, not the upper classes!" "All day, all week, occupy Sotheby's!" "What's disgusting? Union busting!"

Then there were the individual exhortations as patrons began arriving. "Please don't cross this picket line!" or the less-friendly "Go back to the Vineyard!" "Greed is not good!" and my personal favorite, "These artists would have hated you!" (So true, at least most artists.)


From the Beginning

Occupy Wall Street has been focused on the dismaying lock-out of the Teamster-unionized art handlers at Sotheby's from the beginning of the movement.

As the Nation's Jeremy Bercher recently reported, they've been using some creative tactics to demonstrate support, including surreptitiously mingling with the 1 percent and then shaming them:

To support art handlers of the Teamsters’ union, activists from OWS started showing up at Sotheby’s auctions, masquerading as clients. They would suddenly stand up and, instead of offering a bid, disrupt the proceedings with loud denunciations of the company’s labor practices. OWS activists likewise went to a Manhattan restaurant owned by a prominent Sotheby’s board member, clinked on glasses for silence, and then denounced the company as a union-buster. Jason Ide, president of the Teamsters local that represents the art handlers, told the Washington Post that the Occupy tactics surprised and inspired him and his members—so much so that the workers have become regulars at OWS. 

OWS has stood in strong solidarity with Verizon workers and other unions, too, but the love for this labor struggle involving only 43 workers has been particularly sustained.

Why? Because, as I overheard someone saying quite succinctly at last night's picket line, what better symbol of the 1 percent's treatment of the rest of us then one of the globe's most opulent and lavish institutions refusing to bargain with its (devoted) workers?

Sotheby's isn't even standard 1 percent. It's .001 percent.


Locked Out 

The Teamsters-affiliated art handlers at Sotheby's have been locked out for several months, ever since their contract went up for renegotiation.

ThirteenNY's Sam Lewis went down to the picket line to interview the workers there, and explained the background of the dispute:

On Aug. 1, after contract negotiations stalled, Sotheby’s sent letters to the art handlers telling them not to return for work. Their dispute involves shortened work weeks and also the collective bargaining rights of new hires. Sotheby’s initiated the lockout a month after the art handlers’ contract expired. Then they hired temporary employees to replace the union art handlers. The lockout comes after the company announced record profits for the first half of 2011. 

Those record profits are really remarkable. From the WSJ in August: "Sotheby's said it sold $3.4 billion of fine and decorative art in the first half of this year, up 55% from a year earlier, as the art market continues to recover from recession."

$3.4 billion!

One of the handlers Thirteen interviewed had this message:

I just want the people to know that we’re out here everyday for a purpose, we’re not just making noise. The clients seem to be so focused on the auction and people from the community don’t always come inside the building, but they wake up to our whistles. I want them to know that they’re actually waking up to our struggle. Now that we’ve been out here for three months, people from the community have started coming by and asking us questions.

Eyes Opening

It seems as though people in New York are finally opening their eyes to this perfect encapsulation of our nation's gross disparity. As the Wednesday night protest and auction went on, the jeering escalated. It was hard not to feel frustrated by the endless parade of buyers into the Sotheby's entrance.

There were a few arrests, and the temporary-hire security guards lined up with their backs to the picket line to actually shield the attendees (many of whom were flashing jewels and or fancy haircuts) from having to look at the young people and workers shouting "shame."


The cops tried to keep us, even those just taking photos, in designated pens so the sidewalks could be clear, but protesters bristled at this and ran out onto the public space to confront patrons. One young woman danced and skipped up and down the line of security guards.

Some well-heeled auction-goers turned their camera phones at us or laughed, while others hurried in, heads down, to mingle with each other and to break some art-buying records with their millions.

The WSJ reported on the Wednesday auction, describing the night's big sales and naming the attendees:

...competitive energy in Sotheby's York Avenue saleroom, which included everyone from Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell to tabloid favorite and oil heir Brandon Davis. The atmosphere was also lively outside the auction house's doors, as art handlers involved in a labor dispute with Sotheby's protested by bleating air horns.

The protests didn't seem to deter bidders, though. In all, Sotheby's sold $315.8 million worth of art—well over its $270 million high estimate and the third-highest sale total ever achieved by its contemporary art department. (Its peak remains a $362 million evening sale in May 2008.)

After I left the demonstration, the police confiscated whistles and drums due to "noise complaints" from the neighborhood.

Then, moments later, the 1 percenters exited the building. Some doubted it was a timing of pure happenstance.

Thought-Provoking Picket

Observing and standing in the picket line was thought provoking and affirming for me, even in the midst of this busy protest season.

The way the police protected the uber-moneyed patrons and hassled the picketers made me wonder, yet again, who these public servants are here to serve.

The fact that art, which is meant to be democratic, has become so exclusive was also indicative of what has happened to our society. Money going into art isn't bad. But my guess is that many of these ultra-wealthy buyers are purchasing art as status symbols when they could be patronizing upcoming or struggling artists or arts programs for schools, to produce the next generation. And museums, which are meant to serve the public, should put their weight behind the unions' push for negotiations and refuse to participate in scab auctions. But instead, heads were bowed and people entered the building to go on with their elite business as usual.

There were similar observations to be made in the street: the temporary security workers who had to cross their brothers' and sisters' picket line vividly showed the way capitalism pits the working class against each other. Walking over to York Avenue while well-clad women walked their purebred dogs and two other women scrounged through recycling for deposit bottles, I saw another perfect illustration of the gaping class disparity in our nation.

But there was hope present, too. When I was a teenager, I spent one summer working on an anti-sweatshop campaign in New York. It seemed like back then, at the height of the student-labor alliance, there was a protest like this nearly every day, a rowdy but focused group of young people on call at each one to stand by workers who had been mistreated.

As I saw signs declaring solidarity between students, Occupy Wall Street and unionized workers, I realized that the occupation has brought that old alliance back into plain view, and brought it further forward.


So while the drums and whistles were subdued at night's end and the outlandish purchases made without much incident, the outrage was still there, and growing. And a new partnership was further cemented.

I walked back and forth snapping photos at the height of the protest, and the first Teamster I'd talked to tapped me on the shoulder: "They came!" he said.

All pictures by Sarah Seltzer. Below are more pictures from the action, in slideshow form (click the box in the bottom right-hand corner to pop them out).


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Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at