Solidarity with Sotheby's workers at UVM

By Annika Nilsson

BURLINGTON, Vt.--More than 50 students, union members and community activists protested a meeting of the University of Vermont's (UVM) board of trustees to demand that William Ruprecht, the CEO of Sotheby's, end the lockout of Sotheby's unionized art handlers or step down from UVM's board.

Last summer, Sotheby's auction house in Manhattan locked out 42 art handlers for refusing to sign a contract that reduced their health care benefits and threatened the ability of new hires to unionize. The Sotheby's workers struggle was one of the first union struggles to be taken up by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Since then, their picket lines have drawn support from fellow union workers, students and Occupiers numbering in the thousands, and solidarity demonstrations have sprung up around the country.

For students, faculty and staff at the University of Vermont, the attacks on the art handlers hit close to home because of UVM's similar attacks on campus unions--and because of Sotheby's CEO Ruprecht's close relationship with UVM.

The first week of February saw three actions aimed at pressuring Ruprecht to either settle a fair contract with his employees or resign from his position on UVM's board.

On February 1, four art handlers spoke at a public meeting held by the Occupy Burlington labor solidarity working group, in conjunction with the activist coalition Students for University Democracy and the International Socialist Organization. An hour of discussion concluded with plans to go all-out to build a protest at the board of trustees meeting on February 3 and organize a press conference to make public the demand that Ruprecht step down.

On February 3, art handler Julian Tysch, faculty union member Helen Scott and student organizer Nick Gerber gathered with activists in the student center to give statements to the press, while campus police looked on.

"This used to be a good job, a skilled job you could be proud of and raise a family on," Tysch told reporters. "And we had the union contract to thank for that. They're trying to take that away from us...An attack on workers' families in New York is an attack on workers' families in Vermont."

So far, Sotheby's has shown that it plans to use its deep pockets to starve out the workers. In just four months, Sotheby's spent $2.4 million to sustain the lockout, despite the fact that the union contract for all 42 art handlers costs only slightly more than $3 million for the year.

As the press conference concluded, the start of the board meeting approached. Activists gathered with signs reading, "Ruprecht, settle up or step down!" and "Corporate greed has no place at our public university!" We chanted, "Union-busting is disgusting!" as we filed into the meeting room, easily drowning out four members of a pro-Ruprecht student group that decided to attend.

After a rousing chorus of "They say cut back, we say fight back!" the group proceeded with a mic check. When the members of the board moved to close the meeting "for the election of a public official," someone in the crowd responded, "Did you say public official? How do you explain that?"

We took the stupefied look on their faces to mean that they could not.

During the speak-out that followed, students and local union members called for continued organization, solidarity and pressure on the board to deal fairly with unions on campus and elsewhere.

"As a future educator and union member, it's so important for students to stand up for what they believe in," said sophomore Karley Reising. "We've seen unions attacked on our campus, and now the board of trustees is attacking its unions, but our university is full of future workers who will be facing these same attacks. We need to stand in solidarity."