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Art Handlers Defy Union-Busting on Eve of Vote

Taking a stand in Long Island City: Uovo art movers are heading for a vote on unionization.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Workers at the Uovo art-moving and storage company joined about 50 supporters for a rally outside its Long Island City warehouse Oct. 23, two days before they will vote on whether to join Teamsters Local 814.

“We’re helping pioneer this for others,” Ricardo Santiago of the Bronx told the crowd outside the windowless blue and gray building. “We’re trying to fight for the future people of this industry.”

About 40 of the 80 workers at the Long Island City facility will vote Oct. 25, said art handler Daniel Powers, along with a few more at its two warehouses in Rockland.

“The workers reached out to us. They have a lot of issues,” Julian Tysh of Local 814 told LaborPress before the rally. He said they were “joining the wave” of art-worker union organizing, such as at the Guggenheim and New museums.

There is power in a union: Uovo workers are revolutionizing the art-moving and storage industry.

The Teamsters have had contracts with the Sotheby’s and Christie’s art-auction houses for decades, says Tysh. But the art-moving and storage industry is largely nonunion, says Benjamin, a longtime art handler active in an online advocacy and advice group called the Art Handlers Association of New York, who did not want to give his last name. 

“I hope that this is the splash that sends ripples through the industry,” he said. “If they win this, it will embolden a lot of art handlers to realize they can do this.”

The union supporters want better pay and health benefits, for the company to match their contributions to 401(k) plans, and respect in general. “We want real health care,” Daniel Powers told LaborPress. Some of the crates they lift weigh 800 pounds or more, but “when my back hurts, I don’t go for a CAT scan, I can’t afford it,” he says. “This industry is built on our backs, and you only have so many lifts.”

The union campaign “picked up steam very quickly,” he says, and management responded with captive-audience meetings and disinformation, such as taking workers out for drinks and telling them falsely that coworkers were going to vote against the union. 

“They accused me of being a cult leader,” he says. They also charged that the Teamsters were paying him to be a plant, which he calls “an insult to my principles as a father. To put my job on the line to get benefits for my family and be accused of taking money from the union.”

There are about 30 to 40 art-moving companies in New York, according to Benjamin, but bigger companies like Uovo are claiming a growing share of the market, says Powers.

New York State Senator Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) stands with trade unionists in Long Island City.

“Art is no longer art. It’s a stock,” he says. “We hold the most valuable things per pound in the world for the richest people in the world.”

The job gets in your blood, Powers told the crowd—“We went to art school for this. We studied painting for this. We’re touching history”—but when he started out, the man who was his mentor told him, “this will never be a career.” The top starting pay is around $25 an hour, he says, and it takes about 10 years to get up to $30.

He and others want art handling recognized as a skilled trade. “Every job is custom,” he says. “We’re expected to be absolute perfectionists.”

Uovo’s clients include the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Rubin Museum of Art, and the late designer Oscar de la Renta’s company. It is also receiving almost $17 million in tax breaks from the New York City Economic Development Corporation to build a fourth warehouse in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. 

On Oct. 15, elected officials including state Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), and City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Queens) sent a letter to Uovo chair Steve Guttman threatening to take steps to cancel those subsidies if the company did not cease its “aggressive and coercive tactics” against the union.

“For that price tag, the public has the right to demand fair labor practices and that they treat workers with respect,” Salazar told LaborPress.

Santiago, a driver and art handler who’s worked at Uovo for four years, says most workers are on board with the union, and the ones who aren’t “at least understand what we’re fighting for.” Some people in management, he adds, care about the workers’ well-being, but “they don’t see it how we see it”: Collective bargaining gives workers freedom to choose what’s important to them, and without a contract, anything given can be taken away.

“The trickle-down doesn’t work unless we start it,” he told the crowd.

“We’re going to get this. We’re at the finish line,” worker Wayne Hodge said as the rally ended. “We just need to make it through one more day and we’ll be there.

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