Sotheby's 'art handlers', members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and managers from the New York auction house have been meeting to discuss a new contract since May, but recently relations between the parties have soured. Temporary porters have been hired for the duration of the lockout that looks set to continue into this month's Asia Week.
Sotheby's have asked for significant concessions from their art handlers, whose previous contract expired on June 30. They proposed axing a number of senior positions and replacing 12 IBT workers (whose starting salary of $16 per hour includes a full benefits package) with non-union workers (who earn $13.25 per hour with no benefits). The auctioneers also proposed shortening the handlers' working week by 2.5 hours and hoped to continue their policy of hiring additional temporary staff during the peak auction season.
The union, in turn, is hoping to eliminate all non-union workers across the 60 portering staff - meaning the addition of 18 new union hands.
Sotheby's have defended their decision to issue lockout letters to 43 Teamsters and hire new staff, a move that has escalated the dispute. A press statement issued to ATG reads: "Given the union's repeated threats of a strike in their many statements to the media during our negotiations, and the fact that our autumn season was only weeks away, we had to make alternative arrangements.
"We had been in negotiations for several weeks, hoping to reach a compromise and offered the union a contract proposal with attractive terms. Unfortunately the union did not accept this offer and made their own proposals which we could not accept. These included a 42 per cent increase in the number of new union employees which would result in Sotheby's employing significantly more property handlers than Christie's does, despite the fact that in 2010 Sotheby's handled 54 per cent fewer lots than Christie's handled."
Christie's struck a long-term deal with the Teamsters in 2008 which increased the number of union hands on staff and set the starting hourly rate for Rockefeller Center art handlers at $17.50.
This is already the longest lockout in Sotheby's history (they last experienced a stand-off with the Teamsters in 2004 when a lockout lasted for three weeks) and what began in the 'downtime' of August now impinges on the autumn calendar. The two parties will not resume negotiations until September 12, the day before the start of the New York Asia Week series of four sales.
The art handlers are hoping to use Sotheby's recent financial performance to their advantage.
A high-profile guest at the August 26 rally was James P. Hoffa, the general president of the 1.4 million-strong IBT and the only son of the infamous union organiser Jimmy Hoffa. In a tub-thumping speech to the assembled crowd he said: "Sotheby's has joined the growing ranks of companies that abuse their workers despite making hundreds of millions in profit. The Teamsters will always stand up for working people, and we are here to tell Sotheby's that when they act like a corporate bully, we will fight back."
New York State assemblyman Micah Kellner, from the district which includes the Upper East Side, added that Sotheby's had enjoyed record profits this year and demanded that "everyone should share in that".
Alongside outsize inflatable mascots - a rat and a suited fat cat squeezing a union worker in his claw - protesters held banners and signs that read Sotheby's Bad for Art and Sotheby's Stop the War on Art Workers. Other signs read Jackson Lewis Destroys Good Art, a reference to the labour and employment law firm with a history of union avoidance who Sotheby's have hired to handle negotiations.
In the afternoon the hundreds of representatives in town for the 2011 Teamster Women's Conference arrived carrying posters of famous artworks 'vandalised' with rips and markings to imply the perils of employing what the art handlers say are inexperienced staff.
Jason Ide, a former Sotheby's art handler and president of Teamsters Local 814, believes that "to attempt to do Asia Week sales with this crew of temporary workers doesn't seem like a good idea to us". His members include Sim Jones, a porter of 42 years and specialist in handling Chinese ceramics.
Sotheby's take issue with the description of the recently-appointed temporary staff as "unskilled replacement workers".
They said: "We are using experienced art handlers as temporary replacements and we are fully staffed and secure and open for business as usual. We will continue to provide the same level of service for our New York clients as we do for our clients around the world."
Meanwhile James Hoffa is hoping that the issue will find sympathisers among Sotheby's Bond Street porters. "They have an office in London and we will have pickets in London. We are going after them, and if they don't settle this strike we'll shut this place down."