The Sotheby’s Economy

While most of America suffers through recession and unemployment, luxury retailers and service providers are doing quite well. With corporate profits remaining high, the moneyed elites continue to enjoy 5-star hotels, private jets, fancy jewelry, and splendid works of art. Their friends commanding those industries couldn’t be happier.

Such is the case with Sotheby’s, the famous art auction house in Manhattan, New York, which reported $680 million in gross profits last year, its largest take in its history. And the company’s assault on the very workers who make it what it is represents one of the darkest aspects of America’s jobless economic recovery.

Sotheby’s abruptly cut off contract negotiations with Teamsters Local 814, which represents its 43 art handlers, demanding that they accept a 10 percent wage cut, caps on overtime and an end to their retirement benefits. The workers have been locked out without pay since August 1. To add insult to injury, the company two days announced that its net income for the last quarter was up 48 percent from the previous year–the “best quarter in Sotheby’s history,” bragged company president Bill Ruprecht.

“They want to bring in low wage non-union laborers to contribute: no benefits, low wages, no rights on the job, that whole package, and not necessarily people who have art handling experience,” said union president Jason Ide, a former art handler. “We think it’s a risk to put masterpieces in the hands of these replacement laborers.”

(Disclosure: Ide and I were college classmates and active in the student anti-sweatshop movement, and have remained  friends since then.)

The lockout shocked the union, as the two sides hadn’t yet hit an impasse and the company had publicly vowed to bargain in good faith. Ide added that the other major auction house, Christie’s, has already settled a contract with the union. Since the lockout out began, Sotheby’s management has not explained why it is demanding such deep cuts, but Ide can only speculate that the company has been influenced by the anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis, which it had brought in to represent it for the contract talks. “It’s just a power grab, really,” Ide said.

The union’s campaign has been to put pressure on the small but wealthy circle of fine art consumers. “The art world kind of picks up in September,” Ide explained. Locked out workers intend to demonstrate at major events in New York City where Sotheby’s clients will be present, telling them that they are about to spend millions on a work of art that won’t be transported a seasoned professional, but by a random Joe with little specialized training looking for a gig. Ide claims the union already has photos of damaged art works.

On the one hand, with so much economic bad news in the United States, the plight of these 43 workers might seem insignificant. But this is a microcosm of the decline of working America, in the context of the ongoing jobless economic recovery.

Historically, bitter labor disputes have two sides. Workers want their wages to keep up with the rising cost of living, while companies contend that they must deal with losses, the whopping costs of providing health care and competition. The Sotheby’s case and others take America’s labor question into new territory. Last summer, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group forced more than 200 workers to strike when it demanded deep cuts to worker pay and benefits at an upstate New York food and drink plant, all while boasting about rising profits through its recession.

And 45,000 workers at the telecom giant Verzion recently ended a strike; the company, while taking in $19 billion in profits over the four years demanded $1 billion in pay and benefit givebacks from workers.

Like these workers, Sotheby’s art handlers don’t get rich, but they make a living. And that is precisely what these bosses have a problem; no longer does their greed need an economic justification. Instead they demand lower wages and fewer benefits for their workers not because these costs are too burdensome, but simply because they are ideologically motivated to widen the wealth gap at all costs, and know that there are plenty of jobless Americans who are willing to work for peanuts.

The labor conflict at Sotheby’s is a demonstration of how far the American economy has fallen from the ideal standard of American industry in which profitable companies can only sustain themselves if their workers can afford to be consumers in the marketplace. Because of employers like Sotheby’s, the phrase “Be lucky you have a job,” will soon be “Be lucky to be a serf.”

Ari Paul is a contributor to Free Speech Radio News and the Indypendent. His articles have also appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, Z Magazine and The American Prospect.


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