Locked Out Sotheby’s Art Handlers, No. 84 On the Voice List of “Most Powerless New Yorkers,” Back On the Job


We guess we’ll have to strike the art professionals who handle some of the world’s most expensive items when they head to auction from our list of the “100 Most Powerless New Yorkers.”

Crain’s reported yesterday that auction house Sotheby’s and the Teamsters worked out a deal which allows the art handlers to return to their jobs, following a 10-month long walkout. The new contract will last for three years and include wage increases.

We’ve been watching the tale of the art handlers over much of the past year, placing them as number 84 on our powerless list last January. This was following months of protest which didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere, as the unpaid workers tried to feed their families and make ends with few cards left to play (and as Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend told them publicly to go to hell).

But their efforts paid off, and now they’re back on the job.

According to Crain’s,

Workers who handle Picassos, Rembrandts and other pricey artwork for Sotheby’s overwhelmingly ratified a new contract Thursday, ending a 10-month lockout that had become a signature fight of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The three-year deal, reached in the last week, boosts wages 1% in each year, lifts the starting salary to $18.50 an hour, and maintains the workers’ benefits, according to Jason Ide, president of Teamsters Local 814, which represents the 42 workers. Sotheby’s had sought to permanently replace some of the union art handlers with temporary nonunion workers, but the deal protects the positions as union jobs, Mr. Ide said.

As we wrote last month, Sotheby’s lock-out of the moderately paid professional art handlers looked especially egregious when they sold Edward Munch’s The Scream for a record $120 million. We noted how “the house’s cut on a single good day at Sotheby’s could pay the CEO’s salary ($6 million), and the entire union contract, which is just over half of that ($3.2 million), with a few million to spare .”

Still, as happy as the Teamsters seem to be about the contract in the Crain’s article, the resolution came at a very high price. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to raise a family in New York City off of the wages their workers were making, and they went without their salary at all for 10 whole months.

And, though they are getting a 1% increase in pay each year, in real market dollars in this city, that’s no effective raise at all. Consider that if you’re lucky enough to have a rent stabilized apartment (and rent is many New Yorkers’ primary expense), the Rent Guidelines Board most recently approved 3.75% increases on one year leases and 7.25% increases on two year leases. So a 1% pay raise would be a net loss there. Similarly, the Consumer Price Index has risen 2.3% over the past year, meaning you’re paying 2.3% more on average for things that most people by — again, a net loss with this contract in terms of money in the pockets of workers.

At least those art handlers have their jobs back from Sotheby’s. But they had to fight awful hard to get back to where they started, and have done so at great personal financial cost.