Sotheby's held its best auction in three years last night, while just outside its heavily-guarded headquarters at 1334 York Avenue over a hundred students, union workers, and Occupy Wall Street protesters picketed the auction house’s lockout of 42 union art handlers. Chanting such teamster slogans such as “What's disgusting? Union busting!” and blowing whistles in front of a pair of inflatable mascots – one a rat, the other a fat cat squeezing a worker in its fist – the protests had seemingly little effect on the auction, which cleared an estimated $315.8 million and exceeded the high estimate of $270.8 million. The art handlers have been locked out by the auction company over a contract dispute that began July 29.
Still, the protest appears to be gathering steam, due to increased attention from mainstream press and the support of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. “[We’ve] kind of become a symbol for Occupy Wall Street movement,” said Jason Ide, head of the Teamsters Local 814 that Sotheby’s has locked out. It's easy to see why; here was a frenzy of multi-million dollar luxury purchases taking place in an auction house that claimed not to be able to support a living wage and basic benefits for forty essential staff. Organizers noted that the location and poignancy of the event made for one of the biggest Sotheby's demonstrations yet, with a handful of arrests and moments of police violence. Protesters, corralled into a pitiful slice of the sidewalk by police barriers, booed “Shame on you!” and “Don't go in!” at collectors walking hurriedly through a gauntlet of security guards to the auction house’s entrance. While most smiled and kept their heads down, there was a fist-waving exchange when one collector shouted, “Fuck YOU!” at a protester. Both were restrained by security guards.
About an hour into the auction, a few protesters who had moved onto the sidewalk were hurled by police into the street. Police then used a wooden barricade to violently shove the crowds aside, making more space for auction-attendees to exit their cabs. This had been seemingly unprovoked – aside from chanting, drumming, and vuvuzelas – prompting many to yell “This is assault!” and “The whole world is watching!” Eight arrests in total were made.
Though lock-outs are an extremely rare occurrence in labor disputes, Sotheby's hasn’t shied away from using the tactic in the past: back in 2004, when profits were thin, they locked out art handlers for over a week. The present lockout has continued nearly three and a half months. The head of the Teamsters Union for New York City, George Miranda, and Ide reiterated that Sotheby's had been unwilling to negotiate any deal, though the art handlers repeatedly made concessions. Teamsters upheld the demand, though, that Sotheby's not entirely dismantle their pension plan. They hope for more meetings in the upcoming weeks.
In addition to showing up for rallies, Ide mentioned that the public can sign the Teamsters' petition online. Buyers can find comparable, even the same, works at Phillips de Pury and Christie's, which are willing to negotiate on the same contracts with their handlers (Ide also represents 50-some art handlers at Christie’s). Expect continued demonstrations; Sotheby’s is holding their contemporary art day auction this morning.