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Back in July the gallery announced plans to privatise up to 400 of its 600 staff positions, blaming government cuts for leaving them with no other option.
Staff went on strike on Wednesday morning to coincide with the opening of the Rembrandt exhibition, which was manned entirely by private security forces. However the industrial action succeeded in closing the gallery’s East Wing.
The protest formed part of the national dispute over job losses, pay cuts and pension increases. More than 200,000 Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) members took part in the strike outside government offices, museums, galleries and court buildings across the UK.
Paul Bemrose, an officer for PCS told me, ‘National Gallery staff are living on very low income. Costs are going up but wages aren’t. Ultimately we blame the government. They dictate wages here but their pay restraints are not stimulating the economy.’
Outside the entrance to the Rembrandt, two striking gallery workers said they felt undervalued seeing a private company do their job without the same knowledge or passion in art. ‘It’s a strange feeling’ one said. ‘It’s like have squatters in your house. We’ve been turfed out’.
Many gallery workers were reluctant to talk to Red Pepper and refused to be named, fearing repercussions.
Bemrose said, ‘Management are frightened that the gallery’s reputation will be damaged and there’s a threat of disciplinary action if staff speak to the press. There are elements of management who see PCS as a blocker. We want our members to be treated fairly but their primary focus is the exhibitions.’
Another PCS member at the Gallery told Morning Star that ‘when the privatisation package was announced, the head of human resources told us that we couldn’t speak to the press, and that it was an infringement of the confidentiality agreement. On a basic principle of free expression I don’t think it’s right to gag union reps.’
The protests against the National Gallery were firmly supported by environmental groups because the Rembrandt exhibition was also sponsored by Shell.
Clara Paillard, President of the PCS Culture Sector, said: ‘Privatisation and sponsorship by oil companies are two sides of the same coin: it is about the on-going sell-off of public services… It is about exploiting workers for corporate profit.’
On Monday evening, activists from ‘Bp or not to BP’ and ‘Shell out Sounds’ staged a theatrical protest at the press launch of the Rembrandt. Masked actors performed a musical (below) about a ‘Museum man’ who sells his soul to Shell, the ‘corporate monster’ and ‘oily sponsor’.
Chris Garrard from Art Not Oil gave a speech outside the gallery on Wednesday morning: ‘The arts are for people and should be funded by the public – not corporations. The National Gallery have got rid of their links to the arms trade before, they can tell Shell to get lost – we don’t want this privatisation.’