On May Day, earlier this month, just before the General Election, I joined staff on strike at the National Gallery in London. Their struggle against privatisation and job losses continues this week, during the half term school break. With a new more intransigent government recently installed, pledging to make even more cuts. One can't help thinking that art will be an easy target.
The May Day action was charged, exciting, and evocative, hopeful even. May Day has long been a traditional workers' holiday in the socialist calendar, a day when the masses enjoy a well-earned rest from their labours whilst simultaneously showing solidarity with their comrades around the globe, highlighting work-related injustices and calling for fairer conditions. In the UK May Day has a huge cultural significance with its roots in pre-industrial rural Britain and links to pagan fertility rites. It is a time of year when poetry, songs, carnival puppets, banner parades, brass bands and other creative forms of expression still rise to the fore and art joins with activism to make a stand against what was once 'the owner' and is now corporate greed.
This joining together of art and activism has found its contemporary raison d'être at the National Gallery where staff are on strike because of a dispute over the privatisation of two thirds of the staff and the suspension and subsequent dismissal of a PCS union representative. Hundreds of trade unionists marched through London on May Day carrying painted sunflowers to show solidarity with the strikers. This was a powerful and poignant grass roots action; Van Gogh's iconic sunflower painting is on display in the National Gallery and it is continued free public access to work like this that the PCS and other stakeholders are concerned about. This week the action is set to crank up a gear with a 10 day strike organised to coincide with half-term and school holidays.
The dispute centres on a number of issues, including the Living Wage and Zero-Hours contracts, but is now primarily focused on the gallery's decision to outsource its security contract, signifying what could become a worrying trend in the world of public art institutions to bow to the lowest common denominator in respect of market forces.
I remember making a pilgrimage to the National Gallery as a louche teenager, making a beeline for my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. I sat and gazed at these works of art under the watchful eye of attendants. I felt safe and accommodated, looked after yet left alone to contemplate. I also felt that the artworks were safe, and that if ever I wanted to return, or if my children and grandchildren made the pilgrimage after me, these masterpieces, and indeed the entire gallery collection, would be accessible for us and we would be welcome. I believed that this would be the case in perpetuity but now I am not so sure. The slippery slope to privatisation of all that we hold dear - the NHS, the the railways, the Post Office, public utilities - has shut us, the general public, out. Unless we are shareholders we can no longer have a say and yet we once owned these services in common with others. The thought that companies like G4S might have a hand in the policing of our national art collections is frankly terrifying. What skills and track record in respect of art interpretation and audience development do companies like this have? Their core work has grown from prison security including highly controversial contracts with the Israeli government.
The staff at the National Gallery love their work; they believe in the principle of a national art collection being a 'common good', for the benefit of all the people, and they undertake their public service duty from that perspective. No wonder their campaign against privatisation has attracted such massive public support. A 38 Degrees petition has collected in excess of 44,000 signatures and a Facebook group and Twitter page grows apace. Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee has been extremely vocal about the dispute, supporting the PCS, and has called for the incoming gallery director to take stock of the situation and cancel the unholy outsourcing tender process, which was advertised just before the general election when everyone's minds were elsewhere. Meanwhile, eminent artists such as Turner award winners Mark Wallinger and Grayson Perry, have been very public in their support of the strike, signing an open letter against the move to privatise.
The National Gallery belongs to us and continues to hold some of our greatest artistic achievements. It is a cultural treasure we should hold on to, not for reasons of exceptionalism or national pride that may close us off, but for the meaningful exchanges around identity and humanity it can help to instigate between us and our neighbours whether they live in the next street or in another country. Given the times we live in, it is helpful to see the National Gallery dispute in a European context. Since its formation, the European Union has had a particularly special relationship with workers' rights and trade unions; it has put in place systems for constructive negotiation between unions and employers - what has since been called "Social Dialogue".
The European Confederation of Trade Unions negotiate together with the Commission and European Business associations, to ensure workers voices are heard when European legislation is being formulated. From the Working Time Directive and Works' Councils, to maternity or paternity leave and beyond, the European Union has been instrumental in implementing progressive working conditions for people here in the United Kingdom.
The Public Sector Equality Duty, which has also been raised as a concern by the PCS in respect of the gallery dispute, was established by the 2010 Equality Act, which combines European legislation against discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation, or disability. The collaborative and pragmatic spirit of dialogue between workers, employers, and government that led to the formation of that Act should be remembered during discussions around the future of the National Gallery. Healthy industrial relations are key to healthy public policy, and a heavy-handed approach by the Board and new director will not help the institution's public image at a time of change.
Nearly a month after the traditional May Bank Holiday weekend ended with the thousand painted sunflowers now immortalised in the folk memory of Londoners, passing tourists and socialist sympathisers around the globe, it would be wise for the National Gallery to heed the call of the employees, the union, artists and the general public, by placing a moratorium on the privatisation process. A pause will allow proposals to be examined thoroughly to make certain they are in the best interest of the gallery, its workers, the arts community and the 6 million people who visit every year.
Now that the general election is behind us, and the referendum ahead of us, the relation between our membership of the EU and the protection of our social rights must be made clear. The story of Europe, and the case for Europe must be made with all our strength. The political stand against the stripping away of our public sphere is connected with the fight to ensure the UK remains an open and outward-looking nation. That public sphere in the 21st Century, crosses borders, and must be where British, European and international voices advocate cross-cultural dialogue and engagement. This is one of the many reasons our membership of the European Union is so important.
I will continue to stand with the staff of the National Gallery, just as I will be taking a stand emphatically for our place in Europe, in the historic choice our country now faces.