Sotheby’s: offer your art handlers a fair contract

by Paddy Johnson on May 1, 2012 · 5 comments Off Our Chest

In honor of May Day (International Workers Day) Art Fag City has taken it upon ourselves to launch a petition on behalf of Sotheby’s art handlers. They’ve been locked out of work for 8 months, and all because Sotheby’s wants to replace their jobs with temporary workers, leaving the handling of multimillion dollar works to unskilled employees.

That’s not right. If you don’t think it is either, sign this petition. Our appeal below.

For the past eight months, Sotheby’s has locked its 43 unionized art handlers out of work. Rather than negotiating a fair contract with its employees, the company has issued a set of demands: the gutting of the art handlers’ union, the elimination of health insurance and other benefits, and the replacement of full-time skilled workers with temporary unskilled laborers.

Sotheby’s has decided that the handling of priceless artworks is an easy job; that low-paid temporary workers with little training or incentive can manage the constant stream of artifacts into and out of the world’s largest auction house. The 43 locked-out workers who have made art handling their career know this is not true.

There have been no negotiations. In meeting after meeting, Sotheby’s has stalled, preferring instead to extend the lockout in the hopes that their workers might eventually capitulate to demands designed to exploit them. To make certain, the company has hired Jackson Lewis, a notoriously anti-employee law firm that the AFL-CIO has called the “number one union buster in America”.

The message from Sotheby’s is clear: art handlers do not deserve the same benefits as the rest of their staff. If art handlers expect the privileges of their betters, like health insurance or collective bargaining rights, it is acceptable to make them suffer.

Sotheby’s has no financial incentive. Last year, the company saw its highest profits ever, increasing revenue by 7% year-on-year.  They remain the largest and most successful business in the art world, and they know it: in 2010, CEO William Ruprecht more than doubled his own salary, to $6 million.

The entire union contract totals $3.2 million.

It is the sheer obviousness of this abuse of power that makes action necessary.

We are asking artists, collectors, and institutions to sign this petition and stand in solidarity with the Sotheby’s art handlers until they receive a fair contract. This is not about hurting the company financially; unlike Sotheby’s, we have no taste for the suffering of others. This is about displaying a commitment to the moral principle of fair pay for fair labor, and to the possibility of ethical practices in the arts. This is about declaring, as an industry, that people should be treated well. This is about standing up and saying, in one voice: “This is wrong.”

We must be the conscience that Sotheby’s lacks.

If you’re an artist you can tell Sotheby’s you don’t support their sale of your work.
If you’re a collector, you can buy and sell from other auction houses whenever possible.
If represent an institution you can refuse sponsorships from Sotheby’s.
If you’re in the media, you can use your platform to assure that all voices get heard.

Whoever you are, you can sign this petition, and show Sotheby’s where you stand. Then forward it to everyone you know. You can make the art world you want to participate in; a place where people matter, and no one can be casually cast aside.

Paddy Johnson, Editorial Director, Art Fag City
Will Brand, Editor-in-Chief, Art Fag City
Anton Vidokle, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, e-flux
Hrag Vartanian and Veken Gueyikian, Hyperallergic
Haim Steinbach, artist
Deborah Kass, artist
Marilyn Minter, artist
AA Bronson, artist
Shepard Fairey, artist
William Powhida, artist
W.A.G.E., artist collective

Sign here.


Beautiful 12 yr old May 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Straight up truth : If your job involves handling exceptionally rare and expensive property, you should have some perogative to do a good job. This is not the case with an art handler’s union. They have exceptional job security and locked salary – so who cares if they damage and break and misplace property on a regular basis! Not them! They can’t be fired!! Oh wait, Sotheby’s and it’s clients care. You are right – this job should be left to professionals – the issue is that the union was anything but.
Legalize it
9/11 was an inside job

Paddy Johnson May 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm

I can’t get fired from my job either and it doesn’t mean that by consequence I don’t care. I care about doing a good job, not just because my name is attached to the blog, but because there’s a community of people I work with and care about. Job security isn’t the only way of making sure people are held accountable for what they do; good relationships do a far better job than any of that. So where is this at Sotheby’s? Are the relationships at Sotheby’s so rewarding that workers feel compelled to do a good job? Will the lockout do anything to improve those relations?

Mike May 4, 2012 at 9:34 am

And all they wanted was a four dollar raise. 

Frustrated human being May 16, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Do any of you honestly think Sotheby’s would hire “unskilled” workers to handle their property? I hate to break it to you but there are thousands of art handlers in the city with art degrees who actually care deeply for the work they are dealing with. Not having a union behind you to hold your hand and say it’s alright when you mess up creates better workers who are more conscious of their actions and the consequences of ruining priceless works of art. If you want to talk about unskilled workers then consider the percentage of property damage while the union was employed and the decrease in that percentage since they have left. You can also consider the amount of hidden liquor bottles they left behind. Instead of screaming on sidewalks and gobbling up taxpayers money a self respecting person would go find a BETTER job. Like I said, there are thousands of art handlers (and jobs) in the city.

Paddy Johnson May 17, 2012 at 10:22 am

Obviously any handler  that can work at a location for more than six months is going to have a better handle on the job than one who doesn’t. But even if we assume the worst case scenario — the handlers with full time jobs become used to the work, and underperform — there’s still the issue of the temp employees, who don’t receive health insurance or any of the other benefits. That’s a problem. 

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