Fighting Back: Sotheby’s and OWS

Against the Current, No. 156, January/February 2012

an interview with David Martinez

FORTY-TWO TEAMSTER art-handlers at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City have been locked-out of their jobs for more than four months. Against the Current interviewed Sotheby’s shop steward David Martinez about what’s at stake, and how they’ve built links with the Occupy movement to fight back.

Against the Current: You’ve been locked-out for four months now? How did we get here?

David Martinez: Sotheby’s chose this fight. Their arrogance was on display from the very beginning. They tried to circumvent negotiations by taking their hard-line offer directly to the members, mailing it to their homes, hoping to intimidate them into accepting the offer.

Take it or leave it was the message. They were demanding unlimited authority to replace us with nonunion temp workers, the right to eliminate our retirement plan and cut backs in our work week and overtime that would mean a 10% wage cut. They have not moved from these demands since.

They’re thinking long term. They had their most successful year ever last year, making more than $700 million. They’re looking at a Koch brothers strategy, using their profits and power to try to bust us. They hired Jackson Lewis, a union-busting law firm, to take over negotiations for them.

Sotheby’s was counting on apathy and fear, and using the recession to tell us we should shut up and just be happy we have a job. They didn’t think we’d put up a fight. But they were mistaken.

ATC: What is your strategy to fight back?

DM: We analyzed the fight from the beginning. Sotheby’s is a high-profile international company. Their luxury brand and elite image are key to their whole business — so we sought to go after that in a corporate campaign. We wanted to go beyond the picket line to actions targeting their CEO Bill Rupprecht, the Sotheby’s Board of Directors and their high-profile clients.

There is a lot of overlap between these people and the 1% in New York City. Diana Taylor, Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend, is a Sotheby’s board member. Some of the richest clients live in the same Upper East Side building! So we’ve mapped out who has influence there and the biggest pockets, and gone after them.

We also organized big rallies during the largest sales of the auction season.

ATC: Why have you been able to hold out for so long?

DM: So many things in life are about timing. The Occupy Wall Street movement has been a huge shot in the arm to the labor movement. Before, it seemed like a lot of union members and labor leaders would look at each other, waiting for someone to take the lead. Now it’s clear that the membership has taken the lead and been setting the tone.

The Occupy protests have opened a space for workers from different unions too, to come together, build solidarity with one another, and talk about what kinds of struggles it will take to resist the corporations.

We joined the OWS labor-outreach committee to educate protestors and workers from other unions about our fight, saying that Sotheby’s represents a concrete opportunity to get out the message of justice for the 99% and expose the greed of the 1%.

You have Black and Latino working class people working for a multi-billion dollar corporation that sells high-end luxury items to the richest people in the world. And they’re putting their workers out into the street in an attempt to beat them into submission. The connection here to the whole 99% movement is clear.

There’s also a new student movement against debt and tuition hikes. Former Columbia University president and current law professor, Michael Sovern, is a Sotheby’s board member. We’re working with students to organize pressure on him.

Another key thing is that we’ve been organizing at Sotheby’s for more than 10 years. Our current local union president comes out of a successful rank-and-file contract campaign we organized for our last contract. We’re all on the same page and every member is educated about what’s at stake, our strategy, and what they can do to pitch in.

Sotheby’s clearly overreached and underestimated our level of organization. Like most corporations today they’re used to weak unions, to workers not standing up for themselves, and they thought they could just roll over us. They want to use their money and power to set the tone for cheaper labor and more company control for the long term.

They know that if we can organize ourselves and win something all the workers think is fair and can take pride in, it will show workers in other places that they can have a say in fighting for what they want. It’s ideological for them, and for us too — Sotheby’s is fighting here on behalf of corporate power, and we’re fighting for justice for the 99%.

ATC: Where do you go from here?
DM: Sotheby’s is counting on the protests dying out, people’s attention going somewhere else and that we’ll cave in.

We’ve got to stay after the CEO and Board and keep up the public actions. We just confronted Diana Taylor at a meeting of the Hudson River Park Trust — she’s Chair of that too. She said she told CEO Bill Rupprecht she’d resign from the Sotheby’s Board if they gave in to a single one of our demands.

I think that confrontation was pretty telling. She is either completely out of touch as a board member or she truly is as callous as she appeared. She accused us of being unreasonable and demanding, when in truth Sotheby’s is the one making the demands. It is a lockout! They are demanding that we either accept their demeaning proposals or stat out on the street until we do.

She is a board member and responsible for knowing what is going on with employees who have been out of work for over four months, without health care and with families to feed. Her cold-hearted indifference really shows how these one percenters view the world.

Demands? I’ll tell you what our demand is — that they bargain a fair contract with us! That has yet to be seen.

[For updates, photos and videos of the Sotheby workers’ fight, see Check out the video:]

January/February 2012, ATC 156