Amidst a crowd of protesters and oversized signs, Pat Walsh shouted, “What’s disgusting? Union busting?”
At a glance, Walsh, a woman with well-kept gray hair and an open smile, didn’t strike one as the usual angry protester. But that night, Walsh was fighting.
“My husband, John, has been locked out from Sotheby’s,” says Walsh. “He’s been a worker for 30 years. I’m here to fight for him.” Currently, the couple lives on the money and benefits from her part-time job at Hunter College.
On July 29 of last year, 42 art handlers at Sotheby’s Auction House were locked out after the expiration of a three-year contract. The art handlers, members of Local 814 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have been without jobs, paychecks or benefits for almost nine months.
In an effort to bring the board of Sotheby’s back to the negotiating table, the art handlers and members of Local 814 met on May 2 to protest and picket at Sotheby’s in New York City. Allies from Occupy Wall Street and other unions joined them. That night, also, Sotheby’s auctioned off Edvard Munch’s The Scream for a record-setting price of almost $120 million.
Protesters were kept away from Sotheby’s entrance door on 72nd Street and York Avenue. While attendants filed inside, protesters were directed by police officers to the corner on 71st and York Avenue. This location, and the presence of the officers, kept protesters from engaging directly with those entering the doors of the auction house.
Shop steward David Martinez has worked for Sotheby’s for almost 20 years. Art handlers like him are trained to transport art from homes and archaeological sites to the auction house. “We handle everything from major Southeast Asian stone artifacts that just came out of a temple to tribal artifacts from Native Americans,” Martinez says. “We handle fragile, immovable things. That’s something you just can’t get anyone to do.”
“I’m trying to send a simple message — I want to go back to work,” Martinez adds. “There is no other choice. They want to keep us out like that, I say bring it on.”
The idea for the protest emerged from the “99 Pickets” that were organized by OWS as part of its May Day actions. The intention of the pickets was “to connect May Day with the workers’ struggle,” explains Rose Bookbinder, an organizer with OWS and the United Autoworkers Union. “The pickets started on Tax Day, and we kept going. We organized 99 Pickets to make the people of New York aware of the injustice that’s going on in labor.”
The picket at Sotheby’s occurred on May 2 in order to show New Yorkers that the struggle for workers’ rights would not end after May 1, Bookbinder notes.
People from OWS have participated in actions with the Sotheby’s Teamsters since last September as a way of building stronger relationships between the movement and organized labor. According to Harrison Magee, who is part of OWS and the International Workers of the World, actions against Sotheby’s in recent months have “involved a lot of different formations within the organizing community.” Union organizers wanted to broaden the scope of the Occupiers’ struggle. Artists and labor activists within OWS recognized the importance of targeting the influence of corporate wealth in the art world. According to Magee, getting OWS to support the Sotheby’s struggle is a critical way of developing the movement’s capacity for meaningful organizing.
“The fighting mentality and brand of toughness that the Teamsters have is the kind you only learn as an employee — someone who is in direct, physical confrontation with the 1 percent,” says Magee. “Not a lot of OWS has that at its organizing core, which is made up of people who are dedicated to OWS as if it was a full-time job.”
By uniting with the Sotheby’s Teamsters, OWS not only supports workers who have been wronged by the 1 percent, but also strengthens itself for an ongoing role in labor and arts activism. In the process, OWS is “creating a cross-movement that is more coordinated and able to deal with its future as a strong grassroots movement,” Magee says. “Even though the [Sotheby’s] outcome is hugely important, I think we should realize that the lockout itself is really just the red herring for everything to come.”
The sale of The Scream inspired the picketers to do their own “people’s scream,” raising their arms and screaming for two minutes. One Occupier said that the scream was a way for “all of us to bring creative tactics to the pickets to sustain visibility and express our anger.”
It remains uncertain, however, when or if Sotheby’s will start negotiating again. “[Sotheby’s] needs experienced people, and these are the experienced guys,” Pat Walsh said. “So why do [the board members of Sotheby’s] have to be greedy? Give them their jobs back, give them their retirement, give them their benefits, give them something. They put heart into the place.”
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