Is the picture clear? Locked out Sotheby’s workers turn up the heat

by Michael McCarthy

November 10, 2011

This is an amazing video of last night’s protest at Sotheby’s in support of the workers who are locked out there. (I don’t know who made it – but well done, whoever you are!) For those of us that go to union rallies it may seem a bit peculiar. Most rallies these days lack the kind of passion and militancy that you will see if you watch it. The typical union picket mostly consists of walking in a tightly fenced in circle and chanting a few things. While that is better than no union picket at all, Occupy Wall Street has clearly injected a higher level of militancy into labor’s arsenal here in NYC. I think it is going to be that youthful passion and willingness to ratchet up the level of disruption that will be the basis of a renewal of labor strength in America.

Such militancy isn’t historically unprecedented. Militant tactics were the basis of labor’s revival in the 1930s. Most labor historians call the 1920s the non-union era. It was a time in which inequality in society was roughly at today’s level and unions were even more beaten back and subdued than the ones around us. Yet in the wake of depression, working people – both those with and without jobs – put themselves on the line. In many cases they got arrested, in some cases their fate was worse. But on balance, their engagement in militant forms of disruption shut down business as usual and became the core force behind the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act in 1935. In other words, those kinds of disruptive strategies were central to reviving the labor movement and building real social protections for citizens. It’s true that unions were able to survive and thrive as organizations for sometime after those turbulent early years. This was driven in part because of their power in the collective bargaining process and in part because of their electoral alliance with Northern Democrats. But after decades of demobilizing their membership, when businesses went on the offensive in the 1970s unions were ill-equipped to emerge victorious.

Inside, one single painting sold for $60 million. No comment needed.

The Sotheby’s lock out is a microcosm of where we are and where we could go. Its auctions are the playgrounds of the hyper-wealthy – the kinds of people that wear shoes that cost a year’s salary for some and have vacation homes in Martha’s Vineyard. To give you a sense of the commanding heights of luxury they occupy, one painting at the auction being protested in this video sold for over 60 million dollars (no, that is not a typo). And while the hyper-elite enjoy their towering fortunes in places like Sotheby’s, the owners of Sotheby’s are locking out 43 of their art handlers, organized by the Teamsters, because the union refuses to concede on major concessions in their contract. They have been on outside of the building protesting since June 29th. Could the picture be any more clear? Working people, many if not most of whom are people of color, on the sidewalk desperately trying to defend some of the gains they have made through their union juxtaposed with the mostly white hyper-elite adding to their art collections. This is what Occupy Wall Street is all about.

Students and workers, standing together and defiantly challenging Sotheby’s, pushing the boundaries of acceptable protest and breaking the rules that should be broken, putting an end to both business and protest as usual – those are the ways that this struggle offers some insights into where we could go as a movement.