Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- A four-month labor dispute at Sotheby’s has brought out actress Susan Sarandon and hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters on an issue that comes down to who gets to haul the Chippendales and Picassos.
A month after a three-year contract expired, the New York-based auction house imposed a lockout on July 29 on the 42 union workers known as art handlers. Their job involves moving expensive collectibles from showroom to salesroom for waiting bidders.
Sotheby’s said the lockout prevented the workers from scheduling a strike to cause maximum disruption and cost to the auction house.
The handlers belong to Local 814 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has accused the auctioneer of seeking savings that will weaken the union and cut pay. During the lockout, the handlers receive unemployment benefits plus $200 a week from their union. Their health insurance expires in January, the union said.
“You have to decide what’s more important to you, watching ‘Barney’ or eating,’” said handler Roger Ousley, a father of four who temporarily suspended cable television in his Bronx home.
Sotheby’s, which is using temporary workers to handle items for auction, said it’s eager for a resolution. The temps and enhanced security since the lockout began helped account for a $2.4 million jump in “other compensation” expenses in the first nine months of the year, offset partially by savings in full-time salaries, according to a Nov. 9 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
“This is the last thing we wanted,” said Diana Phillips, a company spokeswoman.
The auctioneer proposed cutting the handlers’ workweek to 36 1/4 hours from 38 3/4 hours and increasing the number of temporary laborers, according to both sides. The union said new work rules would decrease eligibility for overtime, resulting in take-home pay declining 5 percent to 15 percent.
Temporary workers without medical or pension benefits would replace unionized art handlers as they retire or find other jobs, the union said.
“The people who leave would not be harmed, but the new jobs would be throwaway jobs,” said Jason Ide, the president of Local 814.
Sotheby’s says the change in work rules won’t eventually result in handlers being all non-union. The two sides have continued to negotiate, including a 4-hour session on Dec. 12.
‘War on Workers’
Since the lockout began, Sarandon appeared outside Sotheby’s Manhattan headquarters on Oct. 18, photographed with the placard, “Stop the War on Workers.” Occupy Wall Street protesters twice joined the picket line. The workers have succeeded in disrupting events involving Sotheby’s board members and posted videos of the confrontations on the Internet.
Yet the union campaign hasn’t made a material dent in financial results, the auctioneer said in the Nov. 9 filing. The handlers, whose work includes packing and shipping of art and collectibles, plus installing and dismantling exhibitions, said the temporary replacements are less skilled than they are and more likely to damage works. Sotheby’s has conducted dozens of auctions with temporary workers since the lockout started.
Asher Edelman, an art dealer who also lends money to clients, said bidders who avoided protests were able to buy via telephone.
“Generally speaking, the so-called 1 percent is not really anti-poor,” Edelman said. “It’s just uninterested.”
Chief Executive Officer William Ruprecht, who started at Sotheby’s three decades ago as a typist in the rug department, assured handlers the dispute isn’t personal, the workers said. But Ide said the cost cutting hasn’t extended to his pay, which doubled last year to $6 million.
“We do think it’s ironic that the entire union contract costs $3.3 million and Mr. Ruprecht got a raise for $3 million,” Ide said. Unionized handlers start at $15.89 an hour, increasing to $20 and up depending on years of service. They said overtime is a key component of annual pay.
Ruprecht’s 2011 total compensation hasn’t been reported. But a Sotheby’s filing said he was issued $4.25 million in “performance share units” this year that vest over four years upon attainment of undisclosed “performance goals.” And his 2010 employment contract entitles him to a salary of $700,000 and ‘an ‘annual target bonus” of $1.4 million, which can be as large as $2.8 million, based on metrics set by the compensation committee.
Phillips declined to comment.
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