May 1, 2012
For the past eight months, Sotheby’s has locked its 43 unionized art handlers out of work. Rather than negotiating a fair contract with its employees, the company has issued a set of demands: the gutting of the art handlers’ union, the elimination of health insurance and other benefits, and the replacement of full-time skilled workers with temporary unskilled laborers.
Sotheby’s has decided that the handling of priceless artworks is an easy job; that low-paid temporary workers with little training or incentive can manage the constant stream of artifacts into and out of the world’s largest auction house. The 43 locked-out workers who have made art handling their career know this is not true.
There have been no negotiations. In meeting after meeting, Sotheby’s has stalled, preferring instead to extend the lockout in the hopes that their workers might eventually capitulate to demands designed to exploit them. To make certain, the company has hired Jackson Lewis, a notoriously anti-employee law firm that the AFL-CIO has called the “number one union buster in America”.
The message from Sotheby’s is clear: art handlers do not deserve the same benefits as the rest of their staff. If art handlers expect the privileges of their betters, like health insurance or collective bargaining rights, it is acceptable to make them suffer.
Sotheby’s has no financial incentive. Last year, the company saw its highest profits ever, increasing revenue by 7% year-on-year. They remain the largest and most successful business in the art world, and they know it: in 2010, CEO William Ruprecht more than doubled his own salary, to $6 million.
The entire union contract totals $3.2 million.
It is the sheer obviousness of this abuse of power that makes action necessary.
We are asking artists, collectors, and institutions to sign this petition and stand in solidarity with the Sotheby’s art handlers until they receive a fair contract. This is not about hurting the company financially; unlike Sotheby’s, we have no taste for the suffering of others. This is about displaying a commitment to the moral principle of fair pay for fair labor, and to the possibility of ethical practices in the arts. This is about declaring, as an industry, that people should be treated well. This is about standing up and saying, in one voice: “This is wrong.”
We must be the conscience that Sotheby’s lacks.
If you’re an artist you can tell Sotheby’s you don’t support their sale of your work.
If you're a collector, you can buy and sell from other auction houses whenever possible.
If represent an institution you can refuse sponsorships from Sotheby’s.
If you're in the media, you can use your platform to assure that all voices get heard.
Whoever you are, you can sign this petition, and show Sotheby's where you stand. Then forward it to everyone you know. You can make the art world you want to participate in; a place where people matter, and no one can be casually cast aside.
Paddy Johnson, Will Brand, Whitney Kimball, Art Fag City
Anton Vidokle, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, E-flux
Hrag Vartanian and Veken Gueyikian, Hyperallergic
Haim Steinbach, artist
Deborah Kass, artist
Marilyn Minter, artist
AA Bronson, artist
Shepard Fairey, artist
William Powhida, artist
W.A.G.E., artist collective
Andy Stillpass, collector
Joanna Warsza and Artur Zmijewski, Berlin Biennial curators
Coco Fusco, artist, writer
Molly Crabapple, artist
James Welling, artist