This week marks OccupyCU’s Student Week of Action. Read on for Bwog’s resident #OWS correspondent Jed Bush’s coverage of Day One: “End the Sotheby’s Lockout” rally.  

Columbia’s Student Week of Action, orchestrated by OccupyCU, got off to a rather low-key start today, but that didn’t stop the 25 or so protesters planted in front of the Law School at noon from making some noise. They targeted former President of Columbia University, current Chancellor Kent Professor of Law at the Law School,  and current Chairman of the Board at Sotheby’s, Michael Sovern, criticizing his poor track record on union rights.

Protesters in front of the Law School

The issue, according to their flier:

“Sotheby’s has kept its Teamsters 814 art handlers locked out… for the past 13 weeks [because they] would not accept Sotheby’s demand that they take a 10% cut in pay and hours, give up their 401(k) plan, and allow their work to be increasingly contracted out to low-paid workers who have no union to protect their rights. The art handlers at Sotheby’s have historically been majority people of color… This attack is not only classist, it’s racist.”

Sharp criticism, especially when you take into account that Sovern is, according to his Columbia bio, a current board member of the NAACP Defense Fund and a founding member of both the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund.

Still, as an issue that was seemingly disconnected from the day-to-day runnings of the university, most students that passed by, undergrads and Law students alike, were ambivalent to the cries of “union busting.” Yet where the protest may have failed to resonate with students, it succeeded admirably with University union workers, as a small contingent stood in solidarity with Teamsters 814 in front of the Law School. Maida Rosenstein, President of UAW Local 2110, the union responsible for representing Columbia’s clerical workers, was present and protested with the students on 116th.

“It’s great that students show that they care about what’s going on about Sotheby’s and our shared  responsibility to stand together with other unions,“ Rosenstein remarked. “In the 80’s, when Sovern was University president, he tried to beat the unions and take away our rights. But we kept fighting, and it wasn’t until 1985 that we won our first contract, but we kept with it and in the end, we won. With Sotheby’s, we’ll keep fighting, because we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”

Issac Friedman was another worker affiliated with 2110 who took time out of his day to stand with the protestors. “For me, it’s about justice, about what’s fair. And as long as these protests remain responsible and safe, I see no reason not to stand in support.”

The point man for today’s protest, Yoni Golijov, claimed that this issue was one of common sense, and was baffled as to how the conflict could even be considered polarizing. “[Sotheby’s] is making $690 million in profits, and they’re demanding their workers take a pay cut?” He also criticized police’s hostile attitude towards the protest—“When I was the only one here, the cops told me that I couldn’t be on this side of the road because of ‘safety issues’ of this cart,” and pointed to a cart propped against the wall that, well, did look pretty harmless. The six police officers on the scene declined to comment on that accusation and merely shrugged, telling us, “We’re just doing our job.”

However, when asked what the objective of the protest was, Golijov claimed it wasn’t so much about actually getting Sovern to face the crowd as it was “build[ing] unity with students, unions, workers, and activists.” Judging by today’s protest, the unity is there, even if the crowds remain rather tepid. With a general assembly tonight, and more events planned for the rest of the week that have broader student appeal, we’ll have to wait and see if this brand of student activism gains momentum in the coming days.