Expanding their reach beyond the confines of Wall Street, a dozen activists from the ongoing Occupy Wall Street action disrupted an art auction at Sotheby’s last week.
The protest supported 43 union art handlers, members of Teamsters Local 814, who were locked out August 1 by the tony art seller.
Occupy Wall Street, organized mostly through social media, began protests in lower Manhattan 12 days ago, calling on “the 99%” to confront the “greed and corruption of the 1%.”
Disguised as potential bidders, the activists entered the building and interrupted the auctioneer one at a time as bidding on an item reached $130,000.
The protesters staggered their interruptions through a period of 75 minutes with shouts to “end the lockout” and “make Wall Street pay.”
They were escorted off the premises by security with no arrests.
“What’s being done to the art handlers is plain wrong,” said Will Russell, a Hunter College student. “Sotheby’s made $690 million in gross profit last year—but they can’t afford to pay their workers a fair wage?”
Actress Ashley Straw also participated. “The greed in this building is a direct example of the corporate greed that has ruined our economy,” she said.
Sotheby’s is demanding that all new hires have no collective bargaining rights, no health benefits, and no job security. The company is operating with scabs and a non-union subcontractor.
Occupy Wall Street supporters said, “Sotheby’s art auctions epitomize the disconnect of the extremely wealthy from the rest of us.”
Sotheby’s also wants the art handlers to give up their 401k plan, take a 10 percent wage cut, cap overtime, and eliminate certain job titles that pay more. In initial bargaining, the company wanted workers to give up their right to sue over discrimination.
Teamsters have been busy fighting the lockout, too, crashing Sotheby’s parties and handbilling its events.
Two Sotheby’s board members are also on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s board, and when they hosted a “diversity gala” last week, Local 814 members showed up to let the celebrity-studded crowd know the people throwing their party are attacking a union that’s 70 percent Black and Latino.
“We thought it was pretty ironic they were patting themselves on the back for their diversity when they’re trying to send families of color back to the 1950s,” said Julian Tysh, an organizer for Local 814.
Last year was Sotheby’s most profitable year ever in its 267 years of business. The union says its CEO, Bill Ruprecht, is paid about $60,000 a day.
The action last week marked the first time the dispute at Sotheby’s has spilled from the street onto the auction floor—but protesters promised it wouldn’t be the last.
This story was originally published on Labor Notes.
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