Sotheby's Ends Its Art Handler Lockout, Concluding a 10-Month Battle That Galvanized the Art World

Sotheby's Ends Its Art Handler Lockout, Concluding a 10-Month Battle That Galvanized the Art World
Members of the Occupy Wall Street community join Teamsters in front of Sotheby's to protest the lockout of union art handlers.
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — After a 10-month-long lockout, Sotheby’s union art handlers reached an agreement with the Upper East Side auction house yesterday. The 42 art handlers from Teamsters Local 814 will begin trickling back to work over the next three weeks following the longest lockout in company history. The lockout, which began a month before Occupy Wall Street, became a symbol of the movement within the arts community, provoking protests outside board members’ homes and officesat affiliated museumsinside auction rooms, and even at Sotheby's London branch. It also inspired a petition to end the dispute, which was signed by 2,740 people, including artists like Fred Tomaselli and Artur Zmijewski. The news of the resolution was first reported by Crain’s New York

Following months of bitter negotiations during which both sides complained that the other refused to budge, meetings began to take on a slightly better tone in February, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, when both sides began making concessions. But the final push toward compromise began after Sotheby’s replaced its legal representation last month, Teamsters Local 814 president Jason Ide told Crain's. Bob Batterman of Proskauer, who represented the NFL in its lockout of players last year, took over for counsel from Jackson Lewis, a firm with a reputation for union avoidance.

The deal will last three years, raise workers’ salaries one percent a year, lift starting salaries to $18.50, and maintain workers’ benefits. It also protects all the existing union positions, some of which Sotheby’s had reportedly hoped to replace with temporary, non-union hires. (Back in February, Julian Tysh, a Sotheby’s union art handler who is also on the bargaining committee, said that the final sticking point left to settle was job security. “We don’t want a contract that allows us to be replaced with temps in the next couple of years,” he told ARTINFO.) Because the final agreement only protects the 42 art handlers currently employed by Sotheby's, a source close to the union says it is still negotiating how many Teamsters the company will employ in the long-term.

Union sources say the one percent raise — which unintentionally takes on additional significance in the context of the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street — was "almost beside the point," considering the costs of the lockout on both sides and the fact that the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, has risen 2.3 percent in the last year. Despite these difficulties, the Teamsters report enthusiasm with the agreement. "I am proud of this settlement, which means pay raises and solid benefits for these 42 workers," Ide said in a statement. "This was a collective victory for the 99 percent." 

Sotheby’s, for its part, won more flexiblity and overtime provisions. The company will now pay lower rates for overtime, and the opportunity to work overtime now will be more evenly distributed amongst the art handlers. “Sotheby’s is pleased that it has reached a new collective bargaining agreement with Local 814 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters,” Sotheby’s spokesperson Diana Phillips told ARTINFO in an e-mail. (It remains to be seen whether recently re-elected board member Diana Taylor will resign from her post at Sotheby's after having threatened to do so last December if any of the art handlers' demands were met.) 

Both sides come out of these protracted negotiations with a few war wounds. Costs associated with temporary workers, enhanced security, and expensive legal council contributed to the $2.4 million jump Bloomberg reported in Sotheby's “other compensation” expenses during the first nine months of the fiscal year (though Sotheby’s Michael Sovern recently told board members the costs were less burdensome in the long term than acceding to the contract demands of the union). 

In addition to being out of work, the Teamsters lost their health insurance on January 1, a development some say added an extra level of urgency to the negotiations. As recently as the penultimate negotiation session, points ranging from work rules, pay, benefits, and even when the art handlers would return to work were all still under discussion.

City Council speaker Christine Quinn also played a role in the negotiations. She spoke to Sotheby's on a number of occasions, according to union sources, as well as to several museums. "I am proud the Council was able to play a helpful role in fostering positive conversations between labor and management," Quinn said in a statement. 

"This was a tough fight," George Miranda, president of Teamsters Joint Council 16, told Crain’s. "Now, we begin the job of rebuilding the relationship with Sotheby's, which had always been a good place to work."