Forty three union art handlers employed by Sotheby's picketed the auction house on Tuesday alongside other members of Teamsters Local 814. The handlers were locked out of their offices on Friday afternoon, according to the union, after contract re-negotiations ground to a halt. In the interim, Sotheby's has hired temporary art handlers.
Jason Ide, President of Local 814, said that Sotheby’s was trying to force the workers to take major concessions in the handlers’ contract, despite having a very profitable year. Those concessions include the replacement of several full-time union workers with temporary non-union workers and shortened work weeks.
“They're trying to push back and take good middle class jobs into the low-wage disposable jobs that more and more employees like to see,” said Ide. “The only problem is that this is an auction house. We handle priceless works of art. So it just seems like this isn't the place to try that strategy.”
Sotheby's said that it had offered an attractive contract to the handlers, and had no choice but to bring in temporary workers as a “contingency plan” after the union repeatedly threatened to strike and disrupt the upcoming fall season.
“The lockout of our property handlers is an outcome that none of us welcomes, as our union colleagues are important members of the Sotheby’s community,” said a Sotheby’s spokesperson in a written statement. “We will continue to bargain in good faith in the hopes that a new agreement can be reached as soon as possible. That is an outcome all of us will welcome.”
Recovering from a dismal 2009 in which the auction house suffered a $6 million loss, Sotheby’s had a very successful 2010, with a net income of $161 million, according to a Sotheby's spokesperson. Consolidated sales were up 74 percent from the previous year in 2010, and CEO William Ruprecht’s pay more than doubled to $6 million as a result of the high earnings.
“We were a big part of that success,” said Ide. “And they came to us and asked for cutbacks. It doesn’t make sense.”
Ide said that the Teamsters and the union's giant inflatable rat would be outside the Sotheby’s Upper East Side offices on 71st St. and York Ave. until the handlers are back in the building.