They normally have access to millions of dollars worth of art, but yesterday art handlers at Sotheby’s auction house weren’t even allowed into the building where they work.
After spending the weekend carrying placards instead of Picassos outside the Upper East Side auction house, art handlers—previously employed on full-time contracts to move, pack and ship some of the world’s most expensive art—were told not to come to work today. Letters were sent to the Teamster 814 Union members on Friday after the auction house and union have been in negotiations over contracts since May.
Teamster spokesperson Jason Ide told Artnfo.com that Sotheby’s has been trying to negotiate the reduction of senior union workers and a shortened workweek to cut costs. Sotheby’s claims the Teamsters wish to add 18 workers to their current staff of 43 full time workers, resulting in Sotheby’s employing more unionized handlers than its competitor Christies, even though Sotheby’s New York base handled only half the number of lots that Christies did in 2010.
The union argues however that in light of Sotheby’s recent increase in sales—up 74 percent to $4.8 billion in 2010—now is not the time to be cutting staff. Replacing trained handlers with temporary workers could result in priceless paintings being mishandled, Ide says.
Given the ongoing negotiations and the fall auction season approaching faster than an Andy Warhol painting exceeding its estimate, Sotheby’s claims it was concerned about possible strike action. The lockout and temporary staff have enabled the auction house to continue functioning as usual. A similar lockout occurred in 2004 and lasted for three weeks before contracts were resolved. The UK’s Independent newspaper claims that this new strike could have an effect on the flow of art between Sotheby’s New York and London bases.
Picketing is expected to continue this week with a rally planned outside Sotheby’s building at 1334 York Avenue this morning.