National Gallery Workers in London Strike Over Privatization

Demonstrators participate in the annual May Day march in Trafalgar Square on May 1, 2015 in London, England. This year, the protests focused on privatization of the National Gallery. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Demonstrators participate in the annual May Day march in London’s Trafalgar Square on May 1, 2015. This year, the rally focused on proposed privatization of the National Gallery. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Today, staffers at the National Gallery in London go on indefinite strike. The city has anxiously watched for over 50 days (and counting) as staffers from the museum have protested a proposed privatization that would make 400 workers employees of an outside company, rather than public employees, later this week.

The firm, named Securitas, is headquartered in Stockholm.

Portions of the museum have been closed on and off since union actions began in February, and many words have been exchanged in op-ed pieces from Public and Commercial Services Union General Secretary Mark Serwotka and outgoing National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny. Former National Gallery Curator Gabriele Finaldi will start as the gallery’s new director next week.

While the museum maintains that no jobs will be lost, and current terms for employees will remain intact in the transfer, the union is opposing more than the gallery’s “ongoing modernization program” at this point.

Along with negotiating the deal with Securitas, top on PCS’s list of grievances is the firing of Union representative Candy Udwin, who is currently appealing with gallery management.

PCS released the following statement prior to beginning today’s strike, saying:

The union remains opposed to the privatisation of all the gallery’s visitor services and is fighting for the reinstatement of its senior representative Candy Udwin, who an interim tribunal has found was likely to have been sacked unlawfully for trade union activity in relation to the dispute.

In an official statement on its website, the National Gallery said:

The National Gallery is a public asset and we have a duty to ensure the collection and the Gallery itself is accessible as much as possible to as many people as possible. We take this task seriously and our ongoing modernisation programme is designed to encourage a broader (and younger) audience to access the wealth of cultural inspiration the National Gallery has to offer … To allow these plans to be implemented the National Gallery needs to introduce new working practices for some visitor-facing and security staff to enable the National Gallery to operate more flexibly. There will be no job cuts and terms and conditions will be protected.

In an article published today in The GuardianPolly Toynbee delves into the terms of the Securitas deal. While a recent move by the museum to quell protestors by guaranteeing that all affected staff would be paid the London Living Wage, it can’t promise that they will remain at their current posts.

Ms. Toynbee writes, “Once outsourced to Securitas, they can legally be moved on to anywhere else in the company, as long they get the same conditions. Securitas has contracts guarding ports and aviation, shops and offices, so someone who has for years guarded Van Goghs and guided visitors to rooms filled with Renaissance wonders could now be sent to protect an airport.”

As PCS takes to the picket line, another wrench in the works is the government’s looming trade bill, which would ban strikes without a 50 percent turnout and require public sector strikes to be supported by 40 percent of eligible voters. If enacted, the bill could hinder PCS’s ability to fight the privatization.

The non-profit group Sum of Us started a petition against the bill, and PCS released a note of support for the petition on its website.

Exhibitions that remain open at the National Gallery are “Soundscapes,” “Take One Picture,” “Sansovino Frames,” “Art in Dialogue: Duccio | Caro,” as well as works in several other select rooms. The museum directs visitors to its website for updates on closures.

National Gallery Workers in London Strike Over Privatization