Over the holidays, many families may have considered a trip to the nation's best loved cultural institutions, amongst which London's National Gallery is traditionally high on the list. However, summer visitors may well have found their outing soured by one of the most protracted industrial actions ever taken against a cultural institution. With a skeletal staff in place, only 17 of the 66 rooms are open to the public, with 22 of the gallery "must see" collections unavailable to view due directly to the strike action.
Gallery staff have been in a long running dispute with the management since gallery shop steward and PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union) Representative, Candy Udwin, was suspended and later dismissed from work in January and May 2015 respectively, after voicing concerns around a privatisation deal that would see two thirds of gallery staff outsourced, and allegedly therefore breaching commercial confidentially.
The National Gallery's plans to outsource two thirds of its workforce to a private bidder confirms a worrying trend for public services to be given over to profit hungry companies. With notorious security firms G4S and CIS manoeuvring for lucrative contracts across a diverse range of sectors, gallery staff and the general public alike were growing increasingly concerned about the future of the nation's artistic heritage. On July 31st the gallery announced that it had awarded Swedish firm, Securitas, a 5 year contract worth £40 million, notwithstanding the unresolved situation regarding Candy Udwin and the resulting public relations issue. The fact that Securitas had been involved in a case of espionage infiltrating civil society human rights campaigning groups on behalf of the Swiss-multi-national, Nestle, from as long ago as 2003, should ring alarm bells. This case was only closed 2 years ago and does not bolster confidence in the ability of Securitas to uphold human rights, including the freedom of assembly and association often linked to trade union rights.
The visitor services and security staff are the human face of the gallery, ensuring all 6 million annual visitors feel welcome and safe; the staff's passion for the fragile masterpieces they protect is well known and they take great care to engage patrons, illuminating some of the works' greatest secrets.
When I stood alongside them during the May Day demonstrations earlier this year, I felt sure the management would sit up and take notice of the calls for meaningful dialogue. Gallery bosses claim it is necessary to outsource the workers as the union wouldn't accommodate flexible working that has been made necessary by cuts in the government grant to the gallery. PCS, who are responsible for the 400 workers whose livelihoods are at stake, have attempted to engage the gallery's management in constructive talks for most of 2014 since the outsourcing plans were revealed, but the gallery have resisted at every opportunity. Even the welcome input from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) in 2015 wasn't enough. In a welcome move forward, the union has finally managed to broker talks with Dr Finaldi, calling for him to intervene over the privatisation and to reinstate Candy Udwin. I hope these discussions can continue and this sorry state of affairs will come to a cordial conclusion.
The gallery has so far refused to reinstate Candy despite her premature dismissal on the eve of strike action being ruled unfair by an expert interim relief judge. An appeal hearing was due to take place but the gallery decided to move it back to the 22nd July, claiming that the inclusion of ex-Gallery Director and recently knighted, Sir Nicholas Penny compromised the neutrality of the hearing panel. We waited with bated breath only to hear that a technicality caused further delay. Following the hearing that eventually took place on 10-11th August, the decision by the Gallery was upheld and Sandy remains out of work. But the workers, who have now initiated an all-out strike are determined to get Sandy reinstated.
The dismissal of Candy promulgates the attitudinal shift towards union representatives who are now seen as a thorn in the side of large organisations and not the vital component of a heathy workforce they actually are. Witness the Conservative government's vicious Bill to limit collective action and we should be under no illusion that workers' rights are under sustained attack as part of an ideological drive to fragment a raft of public services making them more palatable for private companies looking to make a quick profit.
I marched with representatives from the PCS and gallery staff again in June at the 'End Austerity Now' demonstration in London, which saw 150,000 people from around the UK come together to express their disdain for the government's cuts to vital public services. The support the National Gallery staff received was reassuring, reminding us that the problems at the gallery are reflected across our entire public sector and that our voices are louder when we act together.
Just 5 days later, I went to the Houses of Parliament to hear Labour MP John McDonnell quiz Culture Minister Ed Vaizey on what part the Government could play in bringing this protracted dispute to a timely and cordial conclusion. Despite an impassioned, comprehensive contribution from John McDonnell, I was shocked to witness an evasive Mr Vaizey refusing to broker a meeting between union members and management. It would seem Vaizey is content to let this ongoing public relations disaster roll-on, putting the long term reputation of the gallery at considerable risk.
Public confidence, and indeed private support, is not best served when a large number of employees decide to down tools and mount picket lines on Britain's most famous public square. The fact that the striking workers use creative means to get their message across, making sunflowers for supporters to carry on marches and demonstrations, and garnering the support of top artists such as Turner Prize award winners Grayson Perry and Mark Wallinger, adds enormously to public sympathy for their cause as well as high media profile, and the popular anti-austerity Labour Party leadership candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, has also added his support.
With the new Chair of Trustees (daughter of banker Baron Jacob Rosthchild), Hannah Rothschild Gallery Director, Gabriele Finaldi now in place, the PCS hoped their tenure could begin with the support of all their staff. But as the case against Candy Udwin rolls on and on, one has to wonder what an earth Penny thought he was doing when he decided to take on one of the most respected unions in the country and then abandon the gallery to sort out his mess?
The low paid strikers will be holding a rally on Thursday 3rd September from 1-1.30pm outside the Gallery on Trafalgar Square to hand in a petition signed by over 130,000 people contesting the privitisation plans to Dr Finaldi and Ed Vaizey, Culture Minister. You can find out details of the rally and the workers Facebook page where you can make a donation here.
NB: In a response to a previous post I made Penny suggested that my memory was at fault for thinking I sat in front of a pre-Raphaelite painting at the National Gallery years ago. In fact he didn't do his homework properly; the gallery hosted a temporary exhibition of Millais' famous painting of 'Ophelia' in 1987. Whilst I was not a teenager then this was nevertheless still my favourite painting, to be visited wherever it chanced to be exhibited. I would like to point out that I correctly remembered the painting and the gallery but not my age!