Sotheby’s Teamsters and OWS protest The Scream auction Favorite 



May 7 2012


New York City

Amidst a crowd of protesters and oversized signs, Pat Walsh shouted, “What’s disgusting? Union busting?”
At a glance, Walsh, a woman with well-kept gray hair and an open
smile, didn’t strike one as the usual angry protester. But that night,
Walsh was fighting.
“My husband, John, has been locked out from Sotheby’s,” says Walsh.
“He’s been a worker for 30 years. I’m here to fight for him.” Currently,
the couple lives on the money and benefits from her part-time job at
Hunter College.
On July 29 of last year, 42 art handlers at Sotheby’s Auction House
were locked out after the expiration of a three-year contract. The art
handlers, members of Local 814 of the International Brotherhood of
Teamsters, have been without jobs, paychecks or benefits for almost nine
In an effort to bring the board of
Sotheby’s back to the negotiating table, the art handlers and members of
Local 814 met on May 2 to protest and picket at Sotheby’s in New York
City. Allies from Occupy Wall Street and other unions joined them. That
night, also, Sotheby’s auctioned off Edvard Munch’s The Scream for a record-setting price of almost $120 million.
Protesters were kept away from Sotheby’s entrance door on 72nd Street
and York Avenue. While attendants filed inside, protesters were
directed by police officers to the corner on 71st and York Avenue. This
location, and the presence of the officers, kept protesters from
engaging directly with those entering the doors of the auction house.
Shop steward David Martinez has worked for Sotheby’s for almost 20
years. Art handlers like him are trained to transport art from homes and
archaeological sites to the auction house. “We handle everything from
major Southeast Asian stone artifacts that just came out of a temple to
tribal artifacts from Native Americans,” Martinez says. “We handle
fragile, immovable things. That’s something you just can’t get anyone to
“I’m trying to send a simple message — I want to go back to work,”
Martinez adds. “There is no other choice. They want to keep us out like
that, I say bring it on.”
The idea for the protest emerged from the “99 Pickets” that were
organized by OWS as part of its May Day actions. The intention of the
pickets was “to connect May Day with the workers’ struggle,” explains
Rose Bookbinder, an organizer with OWS and the United Autoworkers Union.
“The pickets started on Tax Day, and we kept going. We organized 99
Pickets to make the people of New York aware of the injustice that’s
going on in labor.”
The picket at Sotheby’s occurred on May 2 in order to show New
Yorkers that the struggle for workers’ rights would not end after May 1,
Bookbinder notes.
People from OWS have participated in actions with the Sotheby’s Teamsters since last September as
a way of building stronger relationships between the movement and
organized labor. According to Harrison Magee, who is part of OWS and the
International Workers of the World, actions against Sotheby’s in recent
months have “involved a lot of different formations within the
organizing community.” Union organizers wanted to broaden the scope of
the Occupiers’ struggle. Artists and labor activists within OWS
recognized the importance of targeting the influence of corporate wealth
in the art world. According to Magee, getting OWS to support the
Sotheby’s struggle is a critical way of developing the movement’s
capacity for meaningful organizing.
“The fighting mentality and brand of toughness that the Teamsters
have is the kind you only learn as an employee — someone who is in
direct, physical confrontation with the 1 percent,” says Magee. “Not a
lot of OWS has that at its organizing core, which is made up of people
who are dedicated to OWS as if it was a full-time job.”
By uniting with the Sotheby’s Teamsters, OWS not only supports
workers who have been wronged by the 1 percent, but also strengthens
itself for an ongoing role in labor and arts activism. In the process,
OWS is “creating a cross-movement that is more coordinated and able to
deal with its future as a strong grassroots movement,” Magee says. “Even
though the [Sotheby’s] outcome is hugely important, I think we should
realize that the lockout itself is really just the red herring for
everything to come.”
The sale of The Scream inspired the picketers to do their own “people’s scream,”
raising their arms and screaming for two minutes. One Occupier said
that the scream was a way for “all of us to bring creative tactics to
the pickets to sustain visibility and express our anger.”

It remains uncertain, however, when or if Sotheby’s will start
negotiating again. “[Sotheby’s] needs experienced people, and these are
the experienced guys,” Pat Walsh said. “So why do [the board members of
Sotheby’s] have to be greedy? Give them their jobs back, give them their
retirement, give them their benefits, give them something. They put
heart into the place.”

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