CHICAGO, April 15, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Art handlers with Mana-Terry Dowd LLC may set an industry precedent this month by being the first employees of a major art transportation company in Chicago to unionize.
Approximately 31 high-end art handlers will vote whether to join Teamsters Local 705 on April 25 — the same day Northwestern University football players also could change the face of union membership by organizing with the College Athletes Players Association. Like Northwestern's group, the majority of Mana-Terry Dowd workers are young professionals — art graduates in their mid-20s and 30s eager to set standards where they work.
The art handlers, who transport and install priceless works for anyone from private collectors to the Art Institute of Chicago, represent the latest in a national trend to organize the art world. In 2012, 42 Teamsters at Sotheby's in New York ended a 10-month lockout with a three-year union contract. In 2011, Teamsters as well negotiated higher starting salaries for workers at Christie's auction house.
Most recently, the Teamsters reached a deal on April 9 with Frieze New York, one of the city's most successful art fairs, to begin using union labor at the high-profile event. For Mana-Terry Dowd employees, Chicago's expansive arts community is the next logical destination for unionization.
"If not now, when?" said 24-year-old Chloe Seibert, who works in Mana-Terry Dowd's Logan Square warehouse. "Because we're seen as artists and not laborers, a lot of workers in the art industry aren't being compensated properly for the job they do. Employers today have a large pool of applicants to choose from and unfortunately big private companies tend to take advantage of that. They know they can get away with giving you less."
Wages for Mana-Terry Dowd workers begin at $14 per hour, though more than 70 percent of its workforce walks in with a Master's degree. For 27-year-old Neal Vandenbergh, who's been with the company for 18 months, wages for art industry jobs fall far below the costs of education and certification needed to obtain them.
"Young people are expected to begin their careers this way — at a minus financially. Graduates entering the job market are saddled with debt," said Vandenbergh, who works in all aspects of art transportation, from truck driving to exhibition. "This industry needs a union voice. Labor standards haven't caught up to the speed at which the art market in America has grown."
While employees want fair wages in the industry, worker mistreatment is at the forefront of the Mana-Terry Dowd union campaign. The Teamsters have several unfair labor practice charges against the company pending before the National Labor Relations Board. Management has been charged with threatening to fire or discriminate against workers who support the union, threatening to eliminate positions entirely, interrogating employees and purposefully including supervisors in the bargaining unit of eligible voters.
For art handlers trying to improve workplace conditions, joining the Teamsters only makes sense.
"These are well-educated individuals performing physically demanding jobs. In cities like New York and Chicago, the Teamsters have established industry standards for thousands of workers in transportation, whether our members are behind the wheel of a truck or moving commercial property," said Juan Campos, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 705. "Mana-Terry Dowd employees are taking a stand where there typically haven't been many protections for workers. It's a noble effort."
Terry Dowd has handled fine art and artifacts since 1978, but the company merged with Mana Contemporary LLC in February to form the current venture. Its employees routinely move work for Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and travel regionally for larger installations, such as a recent move of the University of Missouri's Museum of Art and Archeology collection.
Seibert just moved mixed-media American artist David Hammons' glass basketball hoop, which sold at auction in 2013 for $8 million. It's just the kind of workload that speaks volumes to the art handlers' need for union representation.
"Who is a stereotypical union member? A builder, a mover, a truck driver?" Seibert said. "As art handlers, we do all of that and more. Forget the stereotypes. I want to have a say in my wages and working conditions, to be included in the conversation. I want to take hold of my future."