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LONDON — On February 4 from 9 to 11 am the National Gallery of London witnessed the second episode in a five-day strike by museum staff and members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). Over the course of a morning of interactions, I found that the striking employees appeared angry and afraid, the individuals staffing the museum tended toward terse evasiveness, and the visitors seemed largely apathetic.
“I can’t talk to you. They already suspended me,” said picketer Candy Udwin in an apologetic tone. Her offense? Telling her union representative how much the gallery paid for laborers from private security company CIS. Meanwhile, a visitor browsing the Rembrandt postcards was perfectly polite until I mentioned that I was writing a story on the strike. She promptly put in ear buds and turned away.
The tension at the National Gallery, now at a steady boil, began to build when the museum announced the decision last July to outsource visitor services and security jobs. This desire to privatize emerged in response to cuts in government funding. As the museum told Hyperallergic in a prewritten statement, a flexible labor force would allow it to “increase funding from other areas, such as events, retail, and commercial activities … [making use of the] facilities outside of normal opening hours.” The privatization of staff contracts would affect approximately 2/3 of the gallery staff, or about 400 employees.
National Gallery employees responded by circulating an online petition that’s garnered almost 40,000 signatures to date. The museum consequently opened talks with PCS, with the aid of conciliation service Acas. The talks, which lasted five months, went sour, and on January 28 PCS members agreed on a five-day strike in a nine-to-one vote.
PCS officer Paul Bemrose told me that even during the talks, gallery managers were unwilling to negotiate, pressuring the union to agree with the principles document the museum had set forth. “It was like they were holding a gun to our heads,” he said, adding that their suspension of Candy Udwin during the negotiations was an “act of desperation and bad faith.”
I asked Bemrose about the museum’s earlier offer to raise the basic salary (to meet the London living wage) in return for greater flexibility from its employees. This seemed like a potential compromise, an alternative to privatization; why had PCS rejected the offer? Paul countered that the gallery managers had withheld crucial information as to what this increased flexibility would entail. He added that the union has now shifted its position, accepting that flexible contracts could be used for new hires, with preexisting contracts remaining stable.
I wanted to speak with more of the picketers but couldn’t; a confidentiality clause in their contracts prevents them from airing dirty laundry to the press. Bemrose, who as a union representative was fair game, said that those on strike feel threatened by potential disciplinary action, especially following Udwin’s suspension.
So, that’s how we got from a functioning museum to this. It’s a dismal scene: demoralized picketers whose relationship with National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny has become so hostile they booed him at a recent staff meeting; temporarily suspended education programs and a host of closed-off wings; and employees from external agencies staffing the museum with either no idea what’s going on or feigning cluelessness.
Those employees were largely reticent in my attempts to draw them into conversation. When I asked guards about the closed wings, they simply stated that the areas would reopen on Sunday (the strike ends Saturday). Multiple employees said that they worked for external companies —the staffer handing out audio guides from Antenna International, the employee spraying down a countertop in the gift shop from the National Gallery Company, which is apparently a separate entity from the museum — and so had no comment. The Antenna International staffer mentioned that visitors seemed largely unaffected by the strike outside, though some had inquired about the wing closures.
And indeed, the museumgoers I spoke with did not seem to be aware of the strikes or the privatization, and many did not want to discuss the issue. One visitor, a likeable portrait painter named Tamsen, had noticed the new museum signage: “Due to industrial action by some members of staff there are substantial room closures today. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.” “They’re striking about wages, right?” she asked. “I’m sure they deserve higher wages; watching art in a museum must be a bore.”
Back outside, the picketers were disbanding for the day. “It’s a question,” said Bemrose, “of who blinks first.” But the staring contest seemed of little interest to those inside, their attention consumed by the Old Masters paintings unblinking in their lacquered thrones.
The PCS strike continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) through February 7.