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Sotheby’s Lockout Update: Negotiations Make Progress as Art Handlers Lose Health Care and the Auctioneer Loses Money

Sotheby’s union art handlers have been picketing outside the auction house’s Upper East Side flagship for months. It wasn’t long before people in the neighborhood began to walk by without paying much attention. One day last fall, Merry Tucker, a retired teacher, was heading to Sotheby’s offices to consign two pieces of Georgian 18th-century silver she had inherited from her mother. Rather than walk right by the Teamsters, she took a pamphlet and read up on the cause. After the sale, she decided to give a portion of the $5,000 she made to the workers, who have been locked out of their jobs since August in a protracted contract dispute.

“I thought, I never did anything to earn this money,” Tucker told us. “My mother stipulated that a lot of her estate go to charity, and when I learned about the workers’ situation I felt a lot of sympathy for them.” Tucker, who said she is appreciative of her own union-obtained health care, was particularly motivated to give after learning that the art handlers’ health insurance expired January 1. (Workers earn unemployment benefits plus an additional $200 a month from their union during the lockout. However, as of the New Year, they are no longer entitled to health care without a contract.) “I was afraid to let them [the union] release my name until I got the money from Sotheby’s,” Tucker said, “but the check just came.”

Meanwhile, negotiations between the art handlers and the auction house seem to be making progress. “There’s been a slightly better tone in bargaining lately,” said Julian Tysh, a Sotheby’s union art handler who is also on the bargaining committee. The next negotiation session is scheduled for February 9 and 10, and Tysh said he’s “hopeful” a settlement will be final in the coming weeks.

Both sides have made concessions on wages and work rules. A representative from Sotheby’s said the auctioneer issued a revised, comprehensive proposal that includes wage increases, increased contributions for health insurance, and continued participation in the Sotheby’s 401k retirement plan. “To date, the union has not accepted that offer,” spokesperson Diana Phillips said in an e-mail. According to Tysh, the major sticking point left to settle is job security. “We need language that will protect the union…We don’t want a contract that allows us to be replaced with temps in the next couple of years.” Without regular paychecks and now, without health coverage, Tysh added the art handlers are under “a tremendous amount of economic pressure.”

The lockout has taken a financial toll on Sotheby’s too, according to recent reports. Costs associated with temporary workers, enhanced security, and expensive legal council contributed to the $2.4 million jump Bloomberg reported in Sotheby’s “other compensation” expenses during the first nine months of the fiscal year. “That’s almost as much money as our entire annual contract,” said Tysch.

“We will continue to bargain in good faith and remain hopeful that we can reach an agreement soon so that we can bring our union colleagues back to work once there is a new contract in place,” said Phillips. “They are valuable members of the Sotheby’s community.”

In recent months, the plight of Sotheby’s art handlers has become something of a rallying cry to labor sympathizers across the country. In addition to garnering the support of arts-related Occupy Wall Street groups, students at universities that have a connection to Sotheby’s have also spoken out in support of the art handlers. Student groups at Columbia University, where Sotheby’s Holdings, Inc. chairman Michael Sovern is a law professor, and at the University of Vermont, where CEO William Ruprecht is on the board of trustees, held demonstrations and teach-ins. “We’re grateful for the support,” said Tysch. “But really, we just want to get back to work.”

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