The archetype of a starving artist doesn’t conjure up thoughts about labor laws, employment disputes or, really, even working at all. However, for many artists these legal issues are a real aspect of their every day lives. Whether it’s a college photographer who works long hours but is denied benefits, or it’s an art handler who is paid low wages for long physical work days, artists typically face unfair labor situations despite being well educated and working hard. In a rash of revolutions lately, unions are popping up around the nation to combat these employment issues, and to protect the fair labor rights of many artists.
The most recent case is the unionization of art handlers for the prestigious Mana-Terry Dowd art handling company in Chicago, Illinois. The art handlers voted this past month to join the Teamster Local 705, and they are currently in the process of making their representation official. But, this hasn’t come easy, and the events proceeding this decision illustrate how tricky labor laws can be to navigate or enforce.
Neal Vandenberg, an art handler who holds a masters in fine arts from the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a leading organizer of the unionizing effort. “I think we found ourselves in a place where law doesn’t properly represent us or our interests as individuals in the work force.”
As an art handler, he moved and installed art pieces into homes or other spaces, working demanding hours with no employment contract to protect him. He could be fired at any time for any reason, and he had no severance benefits if something happened. Yet his employers, whom he says he has a good personal relationship with, weren’t technically breaking any labor laws, or violating any OSHA regulations.
Labor laws are designed to protect workers from unfair pay for long hours, or unsafe work environments. For instance, the Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), sets the federal minimum wage, which is no less than $7.25 dollars per hour. FLSA also defines federal over time pay and hours, setting the 40 hour work week. These federal standards are the bare minimum, and states can pass their own labor laws within these limits. Illinois, for example, has a slightly higher minimum wage, and has clear regulations about employee breaks and days off. But even with these employee protections, employers often get away with unfair practices because all they must do is follow the minimum requirements set by law, and employees have little negotiating power to stand up for themselves.
For many workers in the art world, they feel the power imbalance in their long hours and low benefits. So, they have turned to unions to give them the bargaining power they need to negotiate terms of their employment.
Neal went on to explain, “I feel like other sorts of legal action result in only punishment for an offender. And our efforts to organize was definitely not about punishing or getting revenge on the employer or any member of the management… But on a collective level I think our desire to unionize is about a structural change to the power relation between bosses and workers.”
Fortunately, under U.S. law, employees have the right to unionize and combine their voices in order to negotiate with employers. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was passed to alleviate the struggles of workers bargaining with the tycoons of the turn of the century and the Golden Age. It has since become a fixture in employment law, and allows employees like Neal and his coworkers to effectively negotiate their contracts with employers.
Currently, many art handlers are “at will” employees, which means they can be fired at any time for any reason, without the protections of employment contract (such as severance pay). Just by joining the Teamsters, the art handlers will be able to get a simple employment contract. This is a big, yet far from only, step toward better work conditions.
The art handlers voted to join the teamsters, with 5 votes being contested because of eligibility. Due to the contest, results will be determined soon. Before the vote, Mana-Terry Dowd management supposedly informed employees there could be repercussions from joining a union, such as a loss of overall positions. This will be heard by the National Labor Relations Board.
As for now the art handlers are still working toward unionizing. At the end of the day, Neal explains this is all worth the trouble of voting, going to contest hearings, and the NLRB. “Just having the protections of a contract employee rather than an at-will employee seem to be worth the organizing campaign.”
Michael Sydney Moore is a 23-year-old Oil Painter from London. His work is centered around high-realism in portraiture. “I do not believe there is any dichotomy present in the idea that an almost perfect rendition of the human form can also be intensely expressive. Expression in painting – for me at least – comes from the deeply individual and selective nature the Artist’s voice carries.” Find out more about Michael here.