Visitors to the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square in recent months have seen pickets and other protests as well as paintings, as staff have taken action over the privatisation of services. Members of the PCS union have taken action, following a nine-to-one vote in favour of strikes, as a consequence of National Gallery trustees moving to outsource its 400 gallery assistants to a private company. The dispute has been exacerbated by the suspension of one of the union’s senior representatives.
The action at the National Gallery is part of a wider battle to run our major cultural institutions in the public interest rather than for private profit. The Gallery currently employs 400 passionate, trained and highly knowledgeable workers to look after its paintings and the six million people who come to see them each year. Most are on low incomes. Some earn only the minimum wage after the Gallery reneged on a promise to introduce the London living wage, meaning it is the only major museum or gallery in the capital that does not pay it.
But what they lack in income, they make up for in knowledge. They add to the public experience and understanding of thousands of paintings and artworks representing over 800 years of human culture, craft and imagination. Privatisation threatens that experience and knowledge as well as the workers’ terms and conditions of employment.
At the beginning of March the workers went on a second five-day strike, during which they took 250 people to the Getty gallery to find the National Gallery trustees’ chair Mark Getty, co-founder of the Getty Images photo agency, and present an alternative to the trustees’ plans. This takes into account many of the trustees’ priorities for the Gallery, including increased opening hours, but keeps its public sector workforce. Getty wasn’t available, just as he hadn’t been available during the previous strike a month earlier. That had culminated in a 40,000-signature petition being delivered to the National Gallery and later presented to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Pouring fuel on the fire, the night before the strike the Gallery suspended one of the union’s senior representatives, Candy Udwin. She had been involved in Acas-facilitated discussions, following which she was accused of ‘breaching commercial confidentiality’ because she raised questions about the cost of using a private company, CIS, to cover in‑house support throughout the strike. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has condemned what he describes as ‘cynical, trumped-up charges’. He says that by suspending a lead negotiator in this manner the Gallery is sending a strong message to other staff to keep their heads down or receive similar treatment.
PCS culture sector president Clara Paillard says that the dispute illustrates everything that wrong with public arts and culture policy at the moment: ‘Boards of millionaire trustees running our public institutions, corporate greed taking over the public interest, exploited workers expected to pay for the bankers’ crisis. Fortunately, more and more people are on our side and I hope they’ll see the light and abandon this ludicrous enterprise.’
Support for the strikers has come from a range of high-profile commentators and artists, from Russell Brand and David Shrigley to Ken Loach and Bob and Roberta Smith. Jon Snow recently tweeted: ‘As a former trustee, I’m shocked that our key duty, safeguarding the art, is to be done by private contractors.’
All of the National Gallery’s services are going out to tender in April – something that no other major public arts institution has attempted. The entire Sainsbury wing is already overseen by the private security company CIS. Polly Toynbee revealed in the Guardian that one Gallery trustee she spoke to had admitted this had been done ‘to give the gallery staff a fright’.
As Toynbee pointed out, in theory employment transfer regulations mean that current employees must be taken on by the new employers on the same terms. However, there’s no obligation to keep them in the same role, and as CIS’s business offer is mostly non-sector specific security, the current specialist staff at the Gallery could end up being moved to hotel receptions or post-room management.
The tender would also be up for pitches from an array of private companies, which could include G4S. This means that the Gallery staff could even be expected to work in detention centres, car parks or anywhere else that they have contracts. That’s not the sort of visitor service that most people would have in mind from one of the world’s leading art galleries.
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