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Lessons from the Victory at Sotheby’s

Gary Roland Jun 4, 2012

Last September 22, when Occupy Wall Street was just five days old, labor activists from the encampment at Zuccotti Park disrupted an auction at Sotheby’s in support of the locked out art handlers of Teamsters Local 814. This action began a collaboration that lasted nine months, eventually leading to the ratification of a new three-year contract that ended the lockout on May 31. George Miranda, president of the Teamsters Joint Council 16, said, “These hard-working men and women will go home today and tell their families that they got their job back, and that’s what the Teamsters call a victory.”

On the management side of the battle was a premier union-busting law firm, Jackson Lewis, which represented a board comprised of some of the most wealthy and politically influential people in the world. On the other side were 42 workers, many of them artists themselves, who loved handling some of the most important art objects in existence and who refused to allow their jobs to be turned into low-paying, temporary contract work. They were joined by OWS activists and the Teamsters Joint Council to struggle toward a victory that some felt was improbable from the outset. The heavy lifting of this campaign, though, was borne by the workers’ family members, who had to tighten their belts and go without during the dispute.

Having been a part of the campaign from the OWS side, I had a chance to see close up how certain strategic decisions led to its success and to draw some valuable lessons from it.

Lesson 1: Choose allies carefully

When the OWS Labor Outreach Committee first met with representatives of the art handlers in the early days of the occupation, OWS activists were busy trying to reach out to potential institutional allies in New York. At that time, it seemed like every 15 minutes a new organization was approaching OWS for help, and it was clear that we needed to bring labor unions into our growing coalition. A worldwide day of solidarity was being planned by the Indignados in Spain for October 15, and many OWS organizers thought that if labor were to throw its weight behind that, we would have a shot at spreading our movement across the country. At the time, most unions didn’t seem to know what to make of us, and they didn’t want to lend their support to a protest that could be gone in a matter of weeks.

We were not looking to throw ourselves into just any labor dispute. There were certain criteria that we were looking to satisfy. It had to be a dispute that we could win, one that had symbolic resonance with the message we were trying to spread and one that would generate interest in the news media. Movements must bring about victories, so it is important to not only go after broad, transformational visions but also to choose shorter, more easily achievable campaigns. Helping to get 42 workers back to work seemed entirely reasonable, and the benefits of bringing a large and influential union like the Teamsters into the fold were obvious.

The art handlers’ story was compelling, and a fitting metaphor for the realities that we all face in a society run by the 1 percent. Our current system removes the humanity from us all and turns us into interchangeable commodities. We are no longer fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters; we become consumers, workers, bosses and debtors. Sotheby’s is a company that drives the ultimate luxury market, taking art objects that are some of the most profound expressions of human culture and selling them as personal property to wealthy buyers. Rather than being held in common for all to admire, they’re often kept in private vaults and admired only for their price tag.

This dispute pitted middle-class workers who wanted to preserve the dignity of their jobs against some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. The bosses put up a hard fight, forcing us to sustain our enthusiasm over a long campaign — which brings us to our next lesson.

Lesson 2: Plan for the long run (but don’t plan too much)

It is important to recognize that a successful campaign may take longer than you expected, and you must pace yourself so you don’t burn out. A movement’s momentum can wax and wane with changing circumstances beyond its control. On November 9 of last year, we held a picket in front of the Sotheby’s auction house, where over 400 OWS and union activists joined the art handlers to try and block the doors to an auction. Sotheby’s could not have foreseen when they originally locked the workers out that this dispute would grow to attract so much support, both in New York and internationally. OWS was also flying high on its own early enthusiasm; anything seemed possible, and there were rumors that a deal must be close. But only a few days later, disaster struck in the form of the NYPD’s paramilitary raid on Zuccotti Park in the early morning hours of November 15. Suddenly, we didn’t feel so unstoppable, and enthusiasm waned.

At the time, we were unable to accept the fact that we were entering a new phase, one requiring new tactics. It’s important when planning a campaign to realize that the environment in which you will be acting is not static. Your opponent will react and change the nature of the conflict, and you’ll have to adapt by finding new ways in which to act.

Soon, the news media had declared OWS dead, and it became harder both to draw people into the streets and to attract coverage when we did. Still, we had a responsibility to the families of the workers to see this campaign through. So we changed it up. No longer did we rely on auction disruptions or picket lines as the sole means of communicating our message. OWS groups like Occupy Museums and Arts & Labor dropped banners on crowded nights at the Museum of Modern Art — which has strong ties with Sotheby’s — and held general assemblies underneath. We put up provocative websites and occupied boardrooms with performance art. We created free art fairs and circulated petitions. Most importantly, we realized that in order to continue to tell the story of the 42 workers, we would have to do so in creative ways that the media couldn’t resist talking about.

It’s also important that activists plan to conserve the energy they accumulate when things are building so as not to burn out. They also need to keep enough flexibility in their plans to allow them to innovate and try new things. This brings me to the last point:

Lesson 3: Horizontality breeds innovation

I can’t tell you how many times during this campaign that I was faced with a problem that I wasn’t sure how to solve — and then someone else would simply walk up to me with a solution. In a group working together as a non-hierarchical collective, if you take time to establish a shared intention both early and clearly, amazing things can happen. The intention of the Sotheby’s campaign was, first and foremost, to get the 42 workers back to work, and that focused our efforts. When a collective decides on an intention like this, it is not like an edict or command handed down by the leader; rather, it is owned by all of the participants. Each member of the collective is then forced to realize, first, that they are each only one part of the puzzle and, second, that they each have a responsibility to help develop creative responses to challenges the group faces. A collective that shares an intention becomes extremely resilient, and the collective is no longer dependent on the actions of any one leader to move forward.

Although I was involved in some critical decisions at important junctures in this campaign, at times, other responsibilities took me away from the campaign. Whenever that happened, there was someone from the collective to keep pushing it toward the intended goal. This capacity for rejuvenation, as well as innovation, gives me hope that our movement might actually contribute to solving the multiple existential crises that face the planet. Shared intentions foster synchronicity. Just as the intention of supporting the art handlers’ struggle brought many different groups with different tactics to a shared victory, I think there’s hope that people everywhere, working through ties of solidarity, can lead us all into a better world.

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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