Mike Milroy, 35, an armed security guard and member of Teamsters local 419 holds a sign outside an art auction at the ROM in support of union art handlers who have been locked out by Sotheby's in NYC for 18 weeks.  Photo: Mick Sweetman

Ken Torres was in Toronto on Monday on a trip with two of his co-workers from New York City. Like many visitors they went to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). However, they weren’t there to look at dinosaur skeletons and other artifacts — they came to put up a picket line.

Torres, 40, and his co-workers are members of the Teamsters union Local 814 and are skilled art handlers for the New York location of Sotheby’s, one of the world’s elite art auction houses. Torres and 43 of his coworkers have been locked out since July 29, 2011. The small Sotheby’s office in Canada used the ROM Monday night to hold one of its bi-annual auctions of Canadian art.

Joining them on the sidewalk were 50 other local trade unionists from not only the Teamsters but also the labour council, electrical workers, hotel workers, and outside workers for the City of Toronto.

Holding signs with a picture of Edvard Munch’s expressionist classic The Scream reading “Sotheby’s bad for art.” Protesters chanted “Union busting is disgusting!”, “No work? No Peace!” and “Up with the union! Down with scabs!” as well-heeled patrons bristled past the line of burly unionists, occasionally taking the informational leaflets offered to them.

The protest did not interfere with people entering the auction as union members tried to strike up friendly conversations about their issues. One woman attending happily took a large protest sign offered to her by the workers who suggested that she hold it up when she bid.

Toronto was only the latest city to see a picket line outside a Sotheby’s auction as part of an international campaign by the Teamsters that has seen protests in London, Geneva, Hong Kong, and Brisbane, Australia. Tim Beaty, director of global strategy for the Teamsters said “International action sends a message to Sotheby’s.”

However, it doesn’t seem that Sotheby’s is listening. “I havre no knowledge about that at all, actually. We’ve been so busy with our own sale and everything connected with it that we haven’t paid any attention or felt any impact from international activities,” said Sotheby’s Canada president David Silcox. “You can talk to people at headquarters in New York about that. I have no comment.”

Silcox also emphasized the global nature of the fine art market. “We help to arrange their works to go to the appropriate office whether New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Geneva, Sidney, or wherever the best market for work is. We do a lot of international work sending things for Canadian collectors to the appropriate market.”

Silcox said the auction in Toronto was wildly successful with the $7.8 million in sales far exceeding the estimate of $4 to $6 million. The painting Evening Stroll, Venice by Quebec artist, J.W. Morrice raked in just under $1.5 million and Jean Paul Lemieux’s Country Club fetched over twice it’s estimated price for $1.1 million. Two paintings by Alex Colville went for a combined $660,500.

“The art market globally is very strong. In Canada, as well as elsewhere, people are purchasing art at all levels. Our offerings are anywhere from $5,000 on up, there’s a very strong market for good and important Canadian art and we are very pleased with the result.” said Silcox

Sotheby’s posted a record revenue of US$774 million with $160 million profit in 2010, a year described by the company as “superb.” In Feb. 2010, Sotheby’s auction house in London sold the most expensive work of art ever at an auction when L’Homme qui marche I (The Walking Man I) by Alberto Giacometti sold for a record £65 million (C$104.17 million).

While the workers have offered to continue to work through the contract negotiations, Sotheby’s hired Jackson Lewis, a “preventive labour relations” law firm, and locked them out. The work at Sotheby’s since then has been done with temporary workers who don’t have experience handling expensive works of art, according to Torres.

“If you wrap a Picasso with the wrong material literally what you’ll get is a pool of paint at the bottom of the package when they open it up. That’s what the 43 (union) guys offer, years and years of experience and knowledge,” said Torres.

Also up from New York was Phil Cordero, 26, who has worked at Sotheby’s since he was 18. Now father of a toddler daughter, he’s worried about a plan by Sotheby’s to cut shifts by four hours a week which translates into five weeks less pay a year. Cordero is also concerned about language in the proposed contract that would prevent workers from suing the company, even in instances of discrimination and human rights violations.

Torres also claims the company wants to get rid of pension contributions, dismiss 10 union members with the most seniority who also direct the work done by the art handlers, and replace union staff with temporary workers through attrition. That continues a trend at the New York auction house that has seen the unionized work force shrink from 72 to 43 despite the previous contract stating that those positions need to be filled.

In addition to the support by other unions, a couple of protesters from Occupy Toronto dropped by echoing the support that the workers have got from activists from Occupy Wall Street in New York, who were camped out near the Sotheby’s Manhattan auction house.

“They’re like a special-ops team, like ‘they’re not there — and then they’re there — and then they’re gone again’, it’s a little crazy,” said Torres clearly impressed by the Occupy Wall Street activists. “They’ve been really supportive of us. They’ve come out to a lot of our major rallies, made a gang of noise, and been really vocal. They’ve been extremely helpful.”

John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, addressed the rally saying that it was always important to show solidarity regardless of the number of workers affected. “When there’s 43, it’s even more important than when it’s 10,000. We’ll be there every time.”

The boisterous rally wrapped up with Randy Doner, president of the Teamsters Joint Council 52 in Ontario, pledging: “If they come back, then we’ll come back until there’s a fair contract!”

Mick Sweetman is rabble.ca’s news intern.

Mick Sweetman

Mick Sweetman is a rabble.ca contributor. His articles and photos have also been published in Alternet, Basics, The Calgary Straight, Canadian Dimension, Clamor Magazine, Industrial Worker, Linchpin,...