Last Friday, Sotheby’s arrested negotiations with its team of over 40 union art handlers by locking them out of the building. In a statement issued by Sotheby’s rep Diana Phillips, the company explains that “alternative arrangements” were necessary, as it could not be unprepared for a strike during the upcoming fall season. According to Jason Ide, the president of the unionized handlers’ company Teamsters Local 814, the auction house is replacing experienced employees with low-paid, temporary workers, some of whom have little or no art handling experience at all. Many of the replacements were supposedly hired from a company called Modern Staffing, a non-specialized temp agency which supplies businesses with employees in the event of a strike. Sotheby’s claims: “Our contingency plan includes using experienced art handlers and Sotheby's York Avenue is fully staffed and secure and open for business as usual.”
When I asked Ide why collectors should worry about multi-million dollar purchases, he pointed out that handlers deal with anywhere between twenty and hundreds of pieces per day. As opposed to in a museum, where a piece may be moved once or twice a year, a work that goes through an auction is touched over ten times through the course of one sale. He explained, “Each work is loaded, unloaded, unpacked, taken to the department floor, catalogued, received, photographed, often conditioned, framed or unframed, color-checked, sometimes hung for special client viewings, prepared for sale, taken to the exhibition, hung, then taken to a buyer or stored; all of that requires experienced attention and care.” Even after sales, the multitude of purchases needs to be sorted, and each work sent to the appropriate buyer.
Ide claims that, contrary to Sotheby's appearance of patiently working through negotiations, the company was both unrelenting and vague about its terms. Local 814’s understanding is that, among a long list of changes, Sotheby’s wants to:
- gut the union
- cut the work week by two and a half hours
- have the option to eliminate retirement benefits completely
- have teamsters waive their rights under federal law; this means relinquishing any right to sue, as in cases of discrimination
- increase its use of non-unionized, low-wage temp workers by 24, rather than supplementing the team with experienced people (it is unclear to the art handlers whether this means replacing union workers)
Since last September, the team has already been reduced from 55 union workers to 43. Ide claims that, even at 55, it was understaffed. “We’re not asking that they have a team of 61 people at all times; we’re just saying that they need more than 43. When they bring in help, they should be well-trained, qualified people.”
In response to its refusal to increase union workers, Sotheby’s representative Diana Phillips stated:
One of the Union proposals has been the addition of 18 new union employees. This 42% increase would result in Sotheby's employing significantly more property handlers than the total number of Christie's union employees (also Local 814), despite the fact that Sotheby's New York handled 54% fewer lots than Christie's handled (based on publicly available information) in 2010.
By “significantly more,” Phillips means ten; Christie’s currently employs 51 union members from Local 814 and agreed to meet its terms. She also claims that the union misrepresents Sotheby’s profitability in its press release. Rather than the union’s stated $680 million, Sotheby’s only made $161 million in profits in 2010.
The Sotheby’s team has traditionally consisted of 50 to 60 union members, with 5 to 10 non-union temps brought in during the busiest months. A union worker’s starting salary, with a full benefits package, is currently $16 per hour, while non-union workers make $13.25 with no benefits. According to Shane Caffrey, founder of the Art Handler Olympics, $25 per hour is the low for experienced and skilled art handlers, and the standard for private freelancing is $30 to $40 per hour. Though they admittedly enjoy a decent benefits package, the union requests that Sotheby’s raises the starting wage to $20.
I spoke with a few of the teamsters who were protesting outside Sotheby’s uptown headquarters. “The majority of the guys have been here ten to forty-five years, and those are the guys they wanna cut,” one worker told me. “The people with the experience to train new hirees.” He reminded me that there is little incentive for low-paid, temporary workers to do a good job, and that the move basically puts extremely valuable artworks at risk. “There have been cases where a seasonal temp caused damage.” When I asked what justification Sotheby’s gave to them for the cuts, he replied, “With any big business, it’s always about money. Yet they made and basically bragged about record profits this year, until they got to the table.”