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"We're the Unsung Heroes": Hear the Remarkable Stories of the Art Handlers on the Sotheby's Picket Line -

"We're the Unsung Heroes": Hear the Remarkable Stories of the Art Handlers on the Sotheby's Picket Line
By Julia Halperin
Protesters rallying outside the Sotheby's headquarters in New York

By Julia Halperin

Published: August 3, 2011
Whistles and foghorns are creating a din outside the typically staid and quiet Sotheby's auction house. For the last four days, over 40 art handlers have picketed the sidewalks, shouting chants such as, "No contract, no work, no peace" and "Shame on you." Around lunchtime, police officers began to ask how late the din would go on for.

The commotion is part of an ongoing contract dispute between union art handlers and the Upper East Side auction house, which escalated after Sotheby's locked out workers on Friday. The art handlers' contract expired at the beginning of July, and the two parties have been in negotiations since May. With several major sales on the horizon in September, Sotheby's brought in temporary, non-union workers this week "so we could assure our clients of smooth and uninterrupted service," according to spokesperson Diana Phillips. The two sides will meet again next week.

The regular picket lines swelled this morning as the Sotheby's art handlers were joined by several neighboring unions for a rally to protest the lockout. "This isn't the first time Local 814 has stood up to make sure that we keep the decent jobs in our local," the 30-year-old Jason Ide, president of Teamsters Local 814 and a former Sotheby's art handler himself, told protesters. In a tone reminiscent of a preacher, he bellowed: "At Christie's auction house, we put up practice picket lines, and the employers said, 'You know what? We don't want to deal with this anymore. We'll go with what the union wants.'" Raucous cheers ensued — Ide led successful contract negotiations with Sotheby's rival Christie's in 2008.

Throughout negotiations, Ide has argued that union workers offer a level of expertise and experience unmatched by non-union workers. ARTINFO stopped by Sotheby's to find out a bit more about the experience and expertise of the art handlers on the picket line, many of whom say they have spent more time around multimillion-dollar artwork than most auction specialists.

The ranks of the protesters run the gamut, from part-time artists to a third-generation art handler. Five of the union members took a break from the picket line to chat with ARTINFO about their place in the art world, and their favorite — and most harrying — tales from the job.

To learn more about the Sotheby's art handlers, click the slideshow at left.