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UOVO workers. Photo: Teamsters.
UOVO workers. Photo: Teamsters.

Laid-Off UOVO Workers Accuse Art Storage Company of Anti-Union Retaliation

Teamsters Local 814, New York’s union for professional movers, has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against UOVO, accusing the New York fine arts storage company of exploiting the coronavirus crisis to punish its pro-union workers. Last week, when UOVO notified employees that they would be expected to work remotely or remain on stand-by, it terminated the employment of several staffers including those who were involved in a recent push to unionize.

“Six of the seven permanently laid-off workers played key roles in last year’s effort to win union recognition and improve working conditions,” Local 814 told Hyperallergic. “Two of them are former Teamster union members—both of whom were known for their early and vocal support of the union as well as their regular wearing of union jackets and union buttons.”

A group of UOVO workers announced their intent to organize a union last October, with the hopes of bargaining for more affordable health care, job security and safety, and a robust retirement plan, among other benefits. Workers lost the unionization effort by three votes later that month. At the time, employees alleged that management had been hostile to their efforts to organize and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hiring the union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson, which they said launched an aggressive campaign to misinform and intimidate workers.

UOVO denied the allegations. “Perceived support of labor unions was not a factor in our decision and management was also affected,” they said in a statement provided to Hyperallergic. “Like many companies, we have made the difficult decision to reduce headcount through layoffs. It is common for unions to file all manner of petitions after losing a representation election and we will disprove the allegations in cooperation with the National Labor Relations Board.”

Peter Mackay, a former UOVO employee and union supporter who worked as a driver and art handler for the company for more than five years and who was among those recently laid off, called the layoffs a “clear retaliation.” “Just because you wait six months and do it under the cover of a global pandemic, doesn’t make it any less obvious. It just makes it more heinous.”

Another union supporter and long-time art handler, Henry “David” Martinez, who had been with the company for more than six years and was also among those laid off permanently, said: “The company thinks they’re being clever by waiting to fire union supporters when they think things have died down. But look around, read the papers, things are not dying down. Workers are fighting back and organizing and striking all over the country. The days of companies like UOVO and Amazon getting away with violating workers’ rights and retaliating against free speech are numbered.”

Meanwhile, UOVO—which provides services in transportation and collection management for collectors and art institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum of Art—has been working to expand to a fourth warehouse location in Bushwick, receiving $17 million in subsidies from the New York City Industrial Development Agency.

[Update: April 15, 12:45 PM] The month that UOVO workers launched their union drive was October, not September, and the article has been changed to reflect this.