The 10-month-long lockout of the Sotheby’s art handlers has come to a close, according to Crain’s New York. The new three-year deal boosts wages only 1% per year—considerably less than inflation—but protects existing union positions, raises starting salaries, and maintains benefits.
First things first: putting these 42 union art handlers back to work is a victory. It’s worth taking a minute to thank everyone who signed our petition, as the Teamsters have repeatedly told us it helped move negotiations forward.
Replacing notoriously anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis with Proskauer Rose is what reportedly made a difference. “Ever since that change happened, they wanted to bargain,” Jason Ide, president of Teamsters Local 814, told Crain’s.
Bob Batterman, Proskauer’s lawyer negotiating for Sotheby’s, said the auction house “won more flexible scheduling and overtime provisions while preserving workers’ job security, wages and benefits.” He also said the company never proposed replacing union workers with part timers.
This last statement is a little misleading. Yes, Sotheby’s never proposed replacing union workers with part-time workers, but they did propose replacing them with temporary workers. Temporary workers are replaced after a specific period of time, whereas part-timers can be permanent staff members.
Many details are still unclear, starting with whether retiring art handlers will be replaced by union workers. In the meantime, AFC’s Will Brand dug into the available public statements from both Sotheby’s and the Teamsters to break down some of the details:
What They Wanted:
From the start, the union had high hopes for increasing the number of union positions available at Sotheby’s. In 2010, they won an additional nine jobs in their negotiations with Christie’s, raising that total from 41 to 50, and prior to the lockout ArtInfo’s Julia Halperin reported that “The union … is hoping to eliminate all non-union workers and restore the art handling staff to a full roster of 60 union members.”
However, it’s unclear when, if ever, that “full roster of 60 union members” existed; during the last Sotheby’s lockout, in 2004, reports indicated that the number of union art handlers stood at 54. During the current negotiations, the number was reported first, during the summer, as 43, before quietly dropping to 42 sometime in the fall.
Statements made by Teamsters Local 814 President Jason Ide indicated that 5-10 temporary, non-union workers are generally hired around the time of the major sales, to handle the increased workload. Prior to the lockout, the unionization of those positions was one of the union’s central goals.
Sotheby’s, for their part, began negotiations by demanding “the replacement of 12 senior union workers with non-union workers.” In previous statements to AFC, the Teamsters asserted that the “non-union workers” in question would largely be temporary positions, at significantly lower wages; Sotheby’s objective seems to have been an art handling staff that it could resize on-demand as business conditions—and auction dates—changed.
Push. Both sides seem to have agreed to drop the issue of either expanded or reduced union membership, which means both sides can claim a victory.
In his statements to Crain’s, Jason Ide made no mention of the union’s original demands:
Sotheby’s had sought to permanently replace some of the union art handlers with temporary nonunion workers, but the deal protects the positions as union jobs, Mr. Ide said.
“Protecting positions as union jobs” isn’t the entirety of what the union wanted, but it seems like a reasonable compromise to us.
What They Wanted:
The union’s opening demands seem to have focused on increasing salaries through the reclassification of jobs from temporary to unionized; under the last contract, that change alone would have translated into an additional $2.75 an hour (from $13.25 to $16) in starting salary for those employees, plus the addition of a (far more valuable) benefits package.
In their 2008 negotiations, the art handlers gained significant ground on wages, successfully fighting for a “20% bump in the starting salary to $15.89 an hour,” according to Crain’s. 2010 talks with Christies, by comparison, lifted the starting salary there to $17.50 an hour.
Sotheby’s, for its part, remained publicly mum on the issue of salaries. That looks like a calculated move: art handler salaries are an infinitesimal part of the auction house’s budget, and make an easy, attractive bartering chip. By leaving salaries on the table, Sotheby’s could pursue larger net gains, both for finances and flexibility, in the outright elimination of positions and the maintenance of non-union positions.
The Union, but we’re betting Sotheby’s didn’t put up much of a fight. Crain’s reports that the final contract sets starting salary at $18.50 an hour, roughly $5,000 more annually for every new union art handler. Overall compensation will increase at a rate of 1% a year, which is significantly less than inflation.
Overtime, Hours, and Benefits
What They Wanted:
Generally, statements to the press in this area have been vague. Crain’s reported early on, citing union officials, that Sotheby’s demands involved “reducing hours, altering work rules and forcing employees to waive some federal equal rights protections,” but offered no further clarification; Julia Halperin reported last year that the reduction in hours was proposed at 2.5 hours per week, but didn’t mention the “work rules” or “federal equal rights protections.”
Reducing overtime pay has been an objective for Sotheby’s management since at least 2004, when one of their lockout objectives was the reduction of overtime from double-time to time-and-a-half “in certain situations.” It’s unclear how the 2004 negotiations ended, and whether the current push was a second attempt at a failed goal or an expansion of those “certain situations.”
Sotheby’s. Bob Batterman, the lead negotiator for the auction house, was quoted in Crain’s as saying that Sothebys “won more flexible scheduling and overtime provisions.” It’s unclear what that entails, but union representatives seem to have stayed away from the topic, and we bet we know why. If the auction house got that 2.5 hour workweek reduction, that amounts to a 6.25% pay cut.
Update: Julia Halperin wrote in to clarify a few details:
From my conversations this morning, it looks like the auction house did not get the 2.5-hour work week reduction it wanted, but did get a reduction in overtime pay (I’m waiting to hear how much). Sotheby’s will also now distribute overtime opportunities evenly among art handlers, not favoring union members or senior employees.