New York Union Members Speak Out at City Hall Against Frieze's Labor Policies

New York Union Members Speak Out at City Hall Against Frieze's Labor Policies
(© Rozalia Jovanovic)

NEW YORK — Frieze is set to return to New York in May, along with its much-publicized problems with the city’s union leaders. This afternoon, representatives of some of the city’s biggest labor organizations gathered on the sunny steps of City Hall to speak out against the fair’s organizers. The argument is the same one that marred the launch of the tony event last year: essentially, that by continuing to use non-union workers to build tents and walls and to move art, Frieze is discriminating against the New York’s unionized laborers.

While last year, the union members targeted the fair with their protest, this year they’re trying a new angle. “We’re calling on City Hall, instead of Frieze, to change the permitting process,” Bernadette Kelly, the international representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, told ARTINFO before the conference started. “These are our parks. We’re New York City residents. If they want to do huge productions like this, they’ve got to give back.”

Last year, the New York City District Council of Carpenters first voiced their anger to the organizers of Frieze in a letter. In response to press queries, the fair issued a statement denying that they were in a labor dispute with the Council of Carpenters or any other labor organization. Workers in turn took to Randall’s Island to protest during the event, though the show went on anyway.

At the heart of their claim is the fee charged for labor by union versus non-union workers. Brian Brady, the council representative for the carpenters union who was one of the most vocal members last year, told ARTINFO that non-union carpenters working around the city earn roughly “$15-16 per hour — without benefits,” whereas the members with the carpenters union earn $86 an hour (which covers healthcare and other benefits).

A junior art handler working for Frieze in 2012 allegedly made $17 per hour, according to Teamsters Joint Council 16 president George Miranda, who spoke at City Hall. To this, the organizers of Frieze told ARTINFO in a statement, “The art handlers are employed by the galleries, each one would have their own handlers and therefore we’re not in a position to comment on that.”

This year, the workers said, Frieze has yet to reply to another letter they sent outlining grievances. “For a month now we’ve been trying to work with them again,” Brady told ARTINFO. “Nobody’s responded.” He alleged that non-union workers are already on site at Frieze New York’s Randall’s Island location, and that they hail from New Jersey and Connecticut. The unions claim that workers at last year's fair came from as far as Wisconsin. To this accusation, Frieze organizers told ARTINFO, “The majority of our vendors’ employees are local.”

As Miranda, president of Teamsters Joint Council 16 pointed out at the press conference today, the fair is no small production: the tenting alone requires over 100 tractor trailers and 1400 trucks to transport building materials in addition to artworks. 

“It is an absolute insult,” said Miranda, speaking during the press conference. “For the second year in a row Frieze Art NY and its management agent, Production Glue, have purposely avoided union labor.” Behind him, the group of other union leaders included Members of the NYC Central Labor Council, District Council 9 of Painters, and others.

In addition to the above comments, Frieze organizers issued the following statement to ARTINFO via email:

Frieze would like to reassure everyone that we are not in a labor dispute with Teamsters Joint Council No.16 or any other collective bargaining organization. Frieze has never had a dispute with any union and has no disputes with any of its employees. 

Frieze has a track record of producing high-quality art fairs and has contracted reputable, mainly local, vendors with the appropriate skills and experience to prepare the Randall’s Island site for the upcoming art fair. We are not engaged in the construction industry in any respect but retain contractors as needed to build the fair according to our participating galleries' needs. Our contractors have assured us that they comply with all laws and that they treat their employees fairly.  

Frieze has a non-profit component to the business, Frieze Projects New York, that supports some of the most exciting contemporary artists working today and provides a public program to accompany the fair. At Frieze New York we aim to make a positive cultural and economic contribution to the City by creating the best art fair experience for our participating galleries and the public.