Today, members of the UK’s Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) commenced “indefinite strike action” at London’s National Gallery in a protest against the museum’s ongoing privatization plans, continuing a battle that has already racked up over 50 days of picketing since museum staffers first walked out in February. The announcement was triggered by news that the National Gallery has signed a five-year contract with the private security firm Securitas, which will affect around 300 visitor and security service roles at the museum. Members of the union are also trying to reinstate lead representative Candy Udwin, who was first suspended from her National Gallery job in February, followed by a full dismissal in May. Until the museum’s management offers a settlement deal, strikers will form a picket line outside the institution, which sits on the heavily trafficked Trafalgar Square, every day for select hours. Messages of solidarity have been emerging on social media through the hashtag #noprivatisation.
“It is extremely disappointing that while PCS continues to try to reach a negotiated settlement, gallery management has pressed on with privatization without any further engagement with the union,” PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said in a statement. “We call on [director] Nicholas Penny to explain why he now believes that selling our members’ jobs to Securitas is the ‘right decision’ when only a few weeks ago he stated in the press that National Gallery staff should remain in-house. What has changed and why is gallery management so determined to press on with this course, to the cost of its reputation and its relationship with its dedicated employees?”
In its own statement, the museum wrote that working with Securitas allows it to “operate with greater flexibility” to serve the over six million visitors that pass through its doors every year.
“No members of staff will be made redundant in this process and all affected staff will continue to be paid the London Living Wage,” the statement reads. “All those staff affected will have the option to move to Securitas with the same terms and conditions and remain a valued part of the National Gallery family (just like their fellow staff members who are employed by DOC, Antenna, and Peyton & Byrne etc.).”
In the meantime, visitors have been affected by the strike action, which has limited access to many of the museum’s galleries. For the past few weeks, the National Gallery has been regularly tweeting out notice of the closures and has issued a statement recommending the public check its website ahead of any visits. Still, many have arrived and left in disappointment upon discovering that certain rooms are closed.
On August 17, the National Gallery will greet a new director, Gabriele Finaldi, who will take over the helm from Nicholas Penny and confront the task of restoring a tarnished reputation. PCS had previously asked Finaldi to intervene and settle the dispute before starting, “but now his first week will be greeted by a continuous strike,” Serwotka said.
“We stand ready to negotiate,” he continued. “We do not believe this privatization is any way necessary, and we fear for the reputation the gallery rightly enjoys around the world as one of our country’s greatest cultural assets.”