Dignity Under the Hammer

I imagine everyone reading this will have heard of Sotheby’s, one of the leading auction houses in the world, not least for photography. I’ve never actually been to an auction, though I’ve walked past their building in New Bond St often enough, and have been to shows in their S|2 gallery opposite their rear entrance in St George St. But I have often looked through their catalogues of photography sales on-line – and there are some interesting images in their next Paris photography sale in November 2015.

But on July 1st, I wasn’t going to Sotheby’s to make a bid for the hand-painted dollar bill by Andy Warhol that sold that night for £20.9 million, or any of the other high-priced contemporary art works that gave them a record sale of £130.4m. Take the m off the end of those prices and I might have considered them, though I would still find some of the amounts paid rather high. But the art market and the photography part of it in particular is simply crazy, and not about art but about money, a subject I have a relatively small interest in.

The workers I was going to photograph do have concerns about money, though previous actions by their union, the UVW (United Voices of the World) very grudgingly got their employer to pay them the London living wage. Although they work at Sotheby’s, cleaning up the place and carrying around those ridiculously expensive artworks, they are not employed by Sotheby’s.

At the time their union actions won the living wage – and contractual sick pay above the statutory minimum – they were employed to work in Sotheby’s by CCML (Contract Cleaning and Maintenance London Ltd.) But Sotheby’s then ended the contract with CCML and made a new contract with Servest, who presumably were able to offer a lower cost service because they decided to renege on the agreement previously reached with CCML, refusing to pay the backdated payments that had been agreed, refusing to honour the agreement over sick pay, stating they were doubtful that they would pay the increased London Living Wage due in November and taking unfair disciplinary action against one of the union reps.

The union, the UVW, is one of several grass roots trade unions set up by low paid workers who feel the traditional trade unions have – except in a few branches – failed to stick up for the lowest paid in the workplace, particularly where they also represent those on higher pay. Regrettably, some trade unionists have regarded attempts to acheive the living wage as an attack on pay differentials and have even sided with management in keeping some workers on the minimum wage. Many of the lowest paid in London are migrant workers and not native English speakers, and some unions have found this hard to cope with – and trade unions are not immune to racism.

These new unions have brought a liveliness to protests that is seldom seen in the traditional union actions, with noisy protests where people parade and sometimes dance, blowing horns and whistles and banging drums. They want people to notice they are protesting, and it is certainly hard not to, and also they make clear with speeches, placards and banners why they are protesting. Some of the protest at Sotheby’s was in Spanish – the language of most of the cleaners – but it was also in English, and the ‘3Cosas’ that they were calling for were contractual rather than statutory minimum ‘Sick Pay, Holidays, Pensions’ and they wanted them ‘Now!!!’

Their chants could certainly be heard by everyone attending the auction at Sotheby’s as well as everyone else in the area. There was considerable tension between police and protesters, with the police trying to move the protest away from the entrance to Sotheby’s and to keep traffic along the street moving.

The protesters wanted to make their protest at Sotheby’s and to make those going into the auction aware of their cause and were not attempting to stop people entering or leaving, but the police seemed to the protesters to be siding with Sotheby’s and trying to minimise the impact of the protest. One of the managers did seem to spend a lot of time trying to persuade the police to be more assertive and clear the protesters away, and reinforcements did arrive and made an attempt to do so, pushing some of the protesters aside, but despite threats of arrest the protesters stayed around in front of Sotheby’s, though leaving the entrance slightly clearer.

As well as the UVW, the protest was also supported by a number of individuals and other groups, including other low-paid and victimised workers and their union branches and Class War, who injected their usual humour into the event, coming armed with water pistols and staging a mock shooting in front of Sotheby’s, as well as some dancing and mime.

Photographically it was a fairly straightforward event, working mainly at close quarters with the D700 and the 16-35mm (used in all the pictures on this post) with just a few longer shots with the D800E and the 18-105mm. The light was good, though the black carpet and awning over the entrance to Sotheby’s did create some deep shadows in that spot, otherwise the fairly bright but low contrast shade in the streets was easy to work with. There were a few times when police seemed over-officious telling me to get off the road, and a few times I was pushed out of the way, but most of the time things were polite and the atmosphere was reasonably friendly. I had to leave before the protest finished, but there were no arrests while I was there.

The day after this protest, 4 cleaners who had taken part in the protest were stopped going in to work, effectively sacked. Following another protest two were reinstated, but protests have continued to get the two most active union members their jobs back. As I write this, the UVW have called off another protest scehduled during tonight’s auction at Sotheby’s as talks have been agreed which it seems likely will end the dispute. It is a dispute that should never have happened, as Sotheby’s are making record profits and the amounts involved in giving their low paid workers decent pay and conditions are relatively small.

More information and pictures at Sotheby’s ‘Dignity under the Hammer’ protest.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

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