Will the Teamsters Strike Sotheby's? The Head of the Art Handlers Union Discusses the Touchy Negotiations With the Auction House

Will the Teamsters Strike Sotheby's? The Head of the Art Handlers Union Discusses the Touchy Negotiations With the Auction House
At some point during yesterday's contract negotiations between Sotheby's art handlers and auction house management, it became clear the two sides would not come to an agreement by the end of the day. "I did most of the talking today," said Jason Ide, a former Sotheby's art handler and president of Teamsters Local 814, which represents the 43 union art handlers, "and we scheduled some more dates."

Though the handlers' contract expired at the beginning of July and the two parties have been meeting regularly since May 12 — they just had their ninth meeting — the groups have been unable to reach an agreement. "Obviously, we're very concerned about the direction bargaining has taken," Ide told ARTINFO after yesterday's several-hours-long session. A strike, he added, was not out of the question, although it remains a last resort.

At yesterday's meeting, the union rejected Sotheby's proposal asking for concessions from the handlers. Proposed concessions included the elimination of certain senior positions, such as general foreman and deputy foreman, and the replacement of 12 senior union workers with non-union workers. The auction house also proposed shortening the handlers' work week by 2.5 hours. The union, in turn, is hoping to eliminate all non-union workers and restore the art handling staff to a full roster of 60 union members.

Historically, 50-60 union members comprise the vast majority of Sotheby's art handling force, according to Ide. The house usually brings on 5-10 non-union temporary workers during the peak auction season, and these are the jobs the Teamsters are looking to replace with union hands. Non-union art handlers make $13.25 per hour with no benefits, while union members currently earn a starting salary of $16 and a full benefits package. 

"The theme for today was just us explaining why we're rejecting their concessions," said Ide. Despite recent financial successes, Sotheby's also recently announced another initiative to reduce operating costs, citing redundancies in Amsterdam and Italy, according to the Art Media Agency. However, Ide pointed to Sotheby's strong financial performance and the value of experienced art handlers as the major motivations for refusing the proposal. The auction house has, indeed, had a good year overall: sales increased by 74 percent, to $4.8 billion, in 2010. Sotheby's president William Ruprecht also received nearly $6 million in compensation, up 150 percent from his 2009 income. 

"Business is booming," said Ide. "In this environment we don't think concessions are appropriate." He added that experienced handlers perform better and improve client experience.

Asked what Sotheby's argument was for requesting concessions, Ide replied, "You know, I've been trying to figure that out." He said the negotiating committee has argued that previous sales performed below estimate, but as Ide mentioned, Sotheby's recent London sale set a record, becoming the highest total for any contemporary art sale in the city to date. "Now I'm really at a loss for what their arguments are going to be," he said.

A Sotheby's spokesperson declined to comment beyond a prepared statement: "We are committed to spending as much time as is necessary to reach a fair and equitable agreement in the current negotiations and to providing a wage and benefits package for our union colleagues which recognizes and rewards their contributions to the success of Sotheby's."

In 2008, Ide led the union in a successful contract negotiation with Sotheby's rival Christie's, winning a bump in starting salary and an increased number of Teamsters art handlers on staff. According to Crain's New York, starting salary for union art handlers at Christie's is $17.50 per hour. (It bears noting that Christie's outgoing chairman, Edward Dolman, began his career as an art handler.) Ide pointed out that following successful negotiations, Christie's is now secure for four years. During that time, "they will not have any labor problems... they [Sotheby's] are not in the same boat."

The Teamsters committee is currently making similar arguments to Sotheby's as those it made to its midtown peer, according to Ide. "The interesting thing about Christie's is that they listened and said, 'You know what, we think the union has a point here.' I haven't heard that from Sotheby's yet."