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 ’s Sunflowers
(1888) and ’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.