Union Labor Is Getting Slowly Friezed Out of Protesting on Randall’s Island

Can you hear the whistles blowing at Frieze today? Union labor hopes you can. A month ago, a letter sent by the New York City District Council of Carpenters to major Frieze New York sponsor Deustche Bank (and several journalists) declared that the art fair had refused to use union labor and that Frieze and a handful of other art fairs “do not pay the area standard wages to all their employees including providing or fully paying for health benefits and pension.”

The art fair responded with a non-statement statement. “Frieze is aware of the letter sent by the New York City District Council of Carpenters and would like to reassure everyone that we are not in a labor dispute with them or any other collective bargaining organization.” Indeed, Frieze is not in a “dispute” with union labor insofar as it takes two parties to create a disagreement, and the art fair has largely left the problem unacknowledged.

Carpenters Union representative Brian Brady noted that the protesters have previously worked on most of the major art fairs in the city, including the Armory Show, Pulse, NADA, and Scope. They had originally been lined up to do work for Frieze, but according to Brady stopped getting calls back about eight months ago after Frieze hired a Manhattan-based company called Production Glue. While the company itself is local, the unions claim that many people doing work during the fair’s installation days arrived in cars from other states, mostly from the Midwest.

According to Brady, standard union rates are $46.10 per hour, plus about $29 in health insurance, pension, etc. Non-union rates can be as low as $25 per hour, paid in cash. However, Brady also estimated that the experienced union workers could have done the job in half the man hours. To the union workers, the loss of the fair is a blow. “It’s a big problem,” said Brady, “They have a contract for this venue for another nine years.”

While Frieze has largely ignored the labor dispute, one entity that purportedly has gotten involved is the mayor’s office. Mayor Bloomberg was spotted browsing booths here yesterday, and, according to Teamsters Local 807 shop steward John Ingigneri, as soon as Bloomberg arrived a woman working for him spoke to the police assigned to the protestors. Immediately afterward, they were told to desist using the horns they had been blowing without interruption for the previous few hours.

“We were here for two days with the horns,” said Ingigneri, “If we don’t make noise, we can’t disrupt anyone.” Disruption, of course, is the point of the protest. While ARTINFO was observing the 20-odd laborers who showed up to protest Frieze today, they were in a moderate tussle with the police, who had restricted their ability to use the whistles with which they had replaced the horns. However, after the word “lawsuit” was thrown around a few times, the sergeant in charge of the small legion of police directing traffic around the protest spent 10 minutes on the phone with his superiors and came back with the okay to use the whistles — but still no horns. The union laborers have also been moved three times over the past two days.

“I can blow a horn in Manhattan — in Times Square — but not on this island?” asked Brady. He noted that it seemed fishy. “We are being pushed around. The Mayor’s office is using the cops as Frieze’s private security system.”

Shane Ferro