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Union Workers Rally at Tate Modern, Protesting Corporate Sponsor

The protest, organized by Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, targeted financial firm Ernst & Young, a major sponsor of shows at Tate.

Workers from the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain stage a flashmob at the Picasso exhibition at London’s Tate Modern (all photos © Ron Fassbender)

Members of a British workers’ union disrupted a Pablo Picasso exhibition at the Tate Modern on Saturday, April 14, targeting the investment company Ernst & Young (EY) for its treatment of cleaners. EY is a chief sponsor for the show, Picasso, 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy, which opened in early March and runs through September; its cleaning staff at three offices in London are currently facing possible redundancies.

Organized by Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the protest filled the galleries, where workers raised signs that read “You say cut back, we say fight back!” and “Job cuts are not justified!” The action follows another surprise protest at EY’s corporate workplace, where workers distributed leaflets to other employees at what they see as “deeply unjust” redundancies.

“We find it astonishing that a company such as Ernst & Young, which uses the slogan ‘building a better working world’ without any sense of irony, spends millions whitewashing its image by sponsoring these sorts of exhibitions, while at the same time throwing its most vulnerable workers on the street without giving it a second thought,” Emiliano Mellino, a spokesperson for IWGB, told Hyperallergic.

Workers from the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain stage a flashmob at the Picasso exhibition at London’s Tate Modern art gallery (all photos © Ron Fassbender)

Sixty-five cleaners, the majority of whom are IWGB members, learned about the potential cuts last month, when they were informed that the cleaning services would be restructured. They are contracted by outsourcing giant ISS, which is currently conducting a consultation process. According to letters that ISS sent cleaners, the redundancies are being done in the name of “cost effectiveness” and in agreement with EY. IWGB argues that such redundancies will place additional strains on an already taxed workforce, which includes many migrants who depend on low-wage work.

Since 2013, EY has invested funds into major shows at both Tate Modern and Tate Britain, as part of a major partnership, which, at the time, was its largest with any single arts organization in Britain. This partnership has been extended until 2022, as Tate quietly announced last month as part of its press release sharing the opening of Picasso: 1932. To date, EY’s funds have helped Tate realize seven major exhibitions, from 2014’s Late Turner at Tate Britain to 2015’s The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern. Next year, the EY-sponsored exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain, will open at Tate Britain.

“Tate is a public institution and on occasion is used by the public as a platform for their views,” a spokesperson for the museum told Hyperallergic. “EY is a long standing supporter of UK arts and culture. Tate works with a wide range of organizations. The Tate Trustees first agreed [to] a sponsorship policy in 1991, and incorporated its principles within an Ethics Policy in 2008. The Board and Ethics committee regularly review compliance with the policy.”

IWGB has also given ISS notice of an intended strike ballot. An ISS spokesperson told the Evening Standard that its consultation with EY is one of a number it is managing with its employees and their representatives.

“It is our sincere desire that we will avoid the need for redundancy and that suitable alternative employment can be found within ISS for any affected individual,” the representative said. “We will be working with our employees and their representatives to this end.”

Benjamin Sutton contributed reporting.

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