Tired of ‘Fast-Food’ Wages, Chicago Art Handlers Organize to Improve Income and Benefits

Local labor unions protested at Frieze New York on Randall's Island las t May.

Local labor unions protested at Frieze New York on Randall’s Island last May.

Professional artists working as art handlers in Chicago are organizing to improve income and benefits in their profession, according to a statement from the Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago. The particular focus is on the art handling company Mana Terry Dowd, specifically the Chicago branch, says Local 705 spokesperson San Juanita Gonzalez.

A vote on negotiating benefits that will be administered by the National Labor Relations Board is scheduled for April 25. According to the statement, “upon graduating with a degree in art, professional artists are faced with few employment options. Even after receiving debt-burdening advanced degrees, postgraduate artists are typically faced with two remaining low-wage choices; to work as an assistant at an art gallery, or to become an art handler.” These jobs “often pay little more than fast-food wages,” according to the statement.

Mana Terry Dowd is opposing the Teamsters’ efforts, but so far has made no comment to artnet News.

The art handlers’ effort to improve wages and conditions is the latest in a string of public disputes between labor activists and art organizations. At last year’s Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island, representatives of local New York City labor unions set up a large, inflatable rat to protest what they said were unfair labor practices. Since then, representatives from Frieze, who initially denied there was tension or a dispute, have reached a settlement with union leaders. Sotheby’s also knocked heads with the unions: Following a ten-month lockout in 2011-12 that involved loud protests staged outside the auction house’s major evening sales in New York, Sotheby’s and the Teamsters eventually hammered out a deal.