October 29, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Low-paid workers at the Utrecht Art Supplies store near Union Square got a big boost in their 8-month-old contract fight with the largest art supplier in the country on Tuesday, when a group of supportive professors marched into the East 13th Street store and served management with a petition calling on the Blick conglomerate to stop stalling, and improve employee working conditions now.
“A lot of the students have a hard time just covering their tuition because they work in these low-wage jobs,” said Stephanie Luce, professor of Labor Studies at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education. “They also work at a lot of jobs that have unpredictable schedules so, it’s even hard for them to make it to class.”
Blick Art Materials bought out the New York City-based Utrecht Art Supplies outfit in 2013. Workers at the East 13th Street store – many of them art students, or working artists – subsequently decided to become the first shop in the nationwide Blick Art Materials chain to unionize when they voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU] last March.
Since then, however, frustrated workers say that management has been dragging its feet and making little to no progress in achieving a fair contract that includes better wages and more stable work schedules.
Three weeks ago, Blick terminated Paloma Zapata – one of the most vocal advocates for unionization.
“I’m still fighting for my co-workers,” an undaunted Zapata said at an accompanying rally held outside the East 13th Street store this week. “We just want a fair contract because we deserve it.”
Travis Hewitt-Roach, a student at FIT, said that he enjoys working at Utrecht Art Supplies, but simply can’t make it on $9.50 an hour, and a ridiculously sporadic work schedule.
“Should I have I to wake up one morning and see I’m only scheduled for one day of work when I’m available for five? Or should I have a wage that allows me to pay for my food, my rent and my laundry?” Hewitt-Roach said.
Nora Krug, associate professor of Illustration at Parsons, said that she will no longer refer her students to Utrecht Art Supplies if management does not agree to a fair contract with workers.
“The city makes it so hard for artists to survive in general,” Krug said. “If we continue like this, and all the prices continue to go up and real estate goes up, there will be no artists left in the city, and the whole culture of this city will be destroyed.”
Fellow Parsons educator Ben Katchor, likened the plight of Utrecht Art Supplies workers with that of low-wage fast food workers around the country – and predicted Blick is in for a rude awakening if it doesn't begin treating its artist staff properly.
“It’s not sustainable,” Katchor said. “They’re going to go out of business soon unless they change their whole business model.”
Rachel Sherman, associate professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research, said that it absolutely "critical" for low-wage workers to fight back.
“What these employers are doing is very common,” Sherman said. “It’s one of the reasons why there are so many crappy jobs in this industry, as well as many other industries.”
The Blick representative who accepted the professors' petition containing the names of more than 50 other educators, refused to comment on this week’s action, and instead released a statement insisting that the company’s compensation and benefits package is better than anything else the retail art supply industry has to offer.
Several other groups including CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, Occupy Wall Street Arts & Labor Group, District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the New York Central Labor Council, also turned out in support of Utrecht Art Supplies workers.
“They [Blick executives] may think that the value of their business comes from the stock in their warehouses and the lease on their store, but they’re wrong,” said activist Peter Walsh. “The value of their business comes from the people working on the floor.”