NEW YORK, N.Y.—Management at the Uovo art-storage company wanted to hold a “captive audience” meeting Sept. 25 to talk workers out of forming a union—but at the company’s Long Island City headquarters, about 40 workers marched in wearing union buttons and asking to be recognized as members of the Teamsters, Local 814 President Jason Ide told LaborPress.
Workers at the company’s Rockland County warehouses also donned union buttons, the Teamsters said in a statement. Management, however, declined to recognize the union, workers at the Long Island City meeting told the Teamsters. Company officials told them that they were all part of a family and could best resolve problems without a union contract.
“A company like Uovo, that counts on doing business with city-funded, pro-union institutions like the Met, and that has asked the city’s taxpayers to help subsidize their expansion into my district, should be expected to treat their workers with respect,” state Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), who accompanied the workers along with Jason Ide, said in the Teamsters statement. “They should recognize their union immediately. If they continue to hold captive-audience meetings and engage in anti-union tactics, then I think it’s our obligation as city and state officials to re-examine all of their dealings with public institutions and public funding.”
Uovo, founded in 2013 by Steven Guttman, an art collector and real-estate developer, and Steve Novenstein, bills itself as “reimagining storage and services for artists, collectors, fashion designers, galleries, museums, and more.” It has three storage facilities, one in Long Island City and two in Rockland County, and is opening a fourth in Bushwick, with aid from the New York City Economic Development Corporation. It also handles transportation, shipping, packing, and installation. Its clients include the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Rubin Museum of Art, and the late designer Oscar de la Renta’s company, which stores its archives in the Long Island City facility.
Despite its high-end clientele, “art workers are exploited,” Ide says, and the job is often dangerous. He said one worker was hospitalized after being hit by a falling crate.
“We’ve been doing this for too long,” said Ricky Santiago, a truck driver and art handler who has been with Uovo for four years. “I’ve coughed up almost $3,000 to take my daughters to the emergency room. If you get sick, you are ultimately screwed, and in this industry it’s been that way for too long. That’s why we built a union here. It’s for our all of our futures and for our families’ futures.”
The workers want affordable family health care, better safety protections, and a retirement plan better than what they have, a 401(k) plan with no matching funds from the company. At the captive-audience meeting, workers said, management argued that ““no companies match 401(k) contributions anymore.”
“Something is happening in the art world now,” said Ide. “Workers are realizing their value and realizing that they have the power to change their situation for the better. That’s why so many art workers are organizing and unionizing.”