200 Workers Are Striking at London’s National Gallery—Here’s Why

On the northern edge of London’s Trafalgar Square last Friday morning, beyond the break-dancers, mimes, and street artists, a small group of protesters fanned out along a wall. They brandished banners at passersby—“No Victimization at the National Gallery,” “Reinstate Candy”—but by lunchtime they were gone.

  • Strikers in Front of the National Gallery, London. Courtesy PCS Union.

Fleeting or not, their long-term message is clear. Some 200 workers have been striking indefinitely at the gallery since August 11th, protesting against the transfer of around 300 or so visitor services roles to the private security company Securitas starting in November. “They cannot say we are not a cooperative workforce,” said one of the strikers, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The management has turned an apolitical workforce into people who strike.”


Though no redundancies are planned, alongside privatization the strikers are protesting against the introduction of compulsory overtime for some evening events, and the dismissal of Candy Udwin, a union organizer for the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), who was dismissed from her job earlier in the year for allegedly violating confidentiality rules. Last week, an internal appeal committee upheld Udwin’s dismissal, which she will contest through a forthcoming employment tribunal.


Conflicts such as this have sadly been fairly common in British arts institutions in 2015. Since February, there have been over 60 days of strikes at the National Gallery, the third most frequently visited art museum in the world. Due to these strikes, many of the gallery’s most famous paintings—including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) and John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821)—have been at points inaccessible to visitors. Elsewhere in August, a number of museum employees in Wales went on strike over pay cuts, and a week-long action began today at the National Museum of Scotland over the loss of a weekend pay allowance.


Exacerbating the points of dispute is what the strikers claim is the disparity in pay between the top earners at the institution and those earning much less. “We are very disappointed,” said the anonymous National Gallery employee. “If the management here was sincere about cutting budgets they should be cutting at all levels of the organization.” “It’s like a gallery run for a few people at the top,” added another employee.


According to the institution’s official remuneration figures for the year ending in March 2015, former director Sir Nicholas Penny’s take-home pay for the year in question was £147,113. The previous year, he received an additional £25,200 in performance-related pay and around £57,000 in pension benefits. The new director, Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, took charge this month. According to an April report in the Art Newspaper, he had been promised a salary of £150,000 when offered the job late last year (by comparison, the directorship of the British Museum, which receives slightly higher attendance levels, is reported to pay around £200,000). Salaries for Visitor Services staff at the National Gallery are beneath £20,000, according to the strikers interviewed, with the median employee pay at just £17,400.

  • Strikers in Front of the National Gallery, London. Courtesy PCS Union.

The National Gallery has its reasons. As part of a sweeping austerity program, its government grant was reduced by 15% in 2010, and has fallen steadily since. According to the gallery’s latest statement on the strike, the PCS’s stance opposes changes that would enable the gallery to operate “more flexibly and deliver an enhanced service.” The statement continues: “The PCS refused to compromise on its position or provide the gallery with an effective and affordable solution.” This contention is disputed by those striking, who say they have delivered their own plans.


The walkouts come at a time of flux in British politics. Here, the left’s mainstream political party, the Labour Party, is regrouping after a major defeat at the country’s General Election in May. Embroiled in a fierce leadership contest, the party is divided between relatively moderate leftist politicians and Jeremy Corbyn, a more hardline socialist, who was one of those backing the strike at the National Gallery. “These low-paid workers are proud public servants and don’t want their jobs sold off,” he said in a statement on August 11th.


Strike action might seem alien to those working in offices without unions; employees accepting bosses’ demands with little recourse is now the status quo. But as Polly Toynbee pointed out in The Guardian earlier this year, the situation at the National Gallery could be interpreted as a microcosm for British society at large—a country where according to British charity the Equality Trust, the richest 10% of households possess 44% of the country’s wealth.


As rain descended on the picket line today, the outsourcing was still set to go ahead, the National Gallery’s grant still remained depleted, and the prospect of Udwin winning her job back anytime soon remained unlikely. National Gallery staff here will soon learn whether upcoming changes will destabilize their jobs as feared. Either way, their protests shine a light on conflicts occurring in other sectors in the U.K.—and the current domination of political debate in the British media by those sympathetic to the strikers’ cause. 


—Rob Sharp

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