Things were looking dire on Tuesday morning at Sotheby's during the Chinese fine art auction. A battered troop of about thirty art handlers—accompanied again by the inflatable fat cat crushing a union worker—marched a long semi-circle inside the partitioned protest zone, chanting “No contract, no work, no peace.” The crowd was about half Sotheby's art handlers, and half members of other local unions. One elderly couple had come to support their son. This time, the whistles and vuvuzelas were gone, along with the force that drove the first protests eight months ago.
“People are falling behind on their mortgages, people who had kids in private school are taking them out, people's phones are getting cut off,” one union member told me. He explained that the art handlers have “bent over backwards to compromise,” abandoning almost all of their initial proposals, and are simply asking Sotheby's not to gut the union.
We've asked for some basic guarantees of the union's existence. Their current proposal is that every time a union worker retires or quits, they will be replaced with a non-union worker with low wages, no retirement, and no benefits.
According to a union member, teamsters consistently makes concessions in meetings, and Sotheby's reschedules them several weeks in the future, prolonging the length of time its union will go without pay. This behavior from the world's largest art business, which boasted record sales last year and record profits in 2010. He continued,
The clients…know us, and they miss us in there. They tell us they want us in there. But it seems to me that one or two people in this company are intent on making us suffer, and we can't understand why.
It's true that at least a few of Sotheby's clients have been publicly supportive. Back in October, for instance, philanthropist and longtime Sotheby's client Lily Safra sent sandwiches to protesters who rallied outside the home of a Sotheby's board member and collectors. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. even cancelled an event that he had planned at Sotheby's—which was especially noteworthy, considering his father's long and notorious battle with the Teamsters' Hoffa family. There has been support elsewhere, too, especially from Occupy Wall Street groups, which conducted mic checks in restauranteur and Sotheby's board member Danny Meyer's restaurants this week. It was clear on Tuesday, however, that the teamsters will need a swift and massive push from the public, and they will need it soon.
One can't help but look to recent protests that have gathered more steam, like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), which was defeated quickly by a loud and widespread public uproar over the internet. Though most people didn't know what SOPA was until January, new sources self-censored their websites in protest, people changed their Twitter pictures, started petitions, and blew up Facebook and Twitter. For most of us, that protest required about as much effort as a Facebook like.
This isn't just about the art handlers; the art world is marked by inequality at every turn. We see it in the legions of artists struggling to pay off student loan debt, who look enviously at the few of their classmates with successful gallery careers. We see it in the way galleries take brutal advantage of the willingness of graduates to work for years as unpaid interns. We see it in the behavior of museums who replace staff with volunteers, without thinking of dropping executive pay or acquisitions budgets. The collective bargaining of the art handlers' union is one of the few remaining guarantees of fairness in the art world, and Sotheby's is doing everything they can to eliminate it. That's a problem for all of us.