MPs yesterday debated the issue of privatising staff at London’s National Gallery. Since February, National Gallery staff, who are members of the PCS union, have taken part in 45 days of strike action. This is against plans to outsource 400 of the 600 staff to a private company. Staff have been further angered by the dismissal of Candy Unwin, who they say was sacked due to her union activities. Unwin was formerly the senior PCS representative at the Gallery.
Labour’s John McDonnell called on MPs to intervene in the dispute, before ‘further damage is done to the gallery, its staff and its reputation.’ This call was echoed by newly elected Labour MP for York Central, Rachel Maskell. League of Culture is pleased to see its local MP getting involved.
Conservative MP Mark Field, who has the pleasure of having the National Gallery in his constituency (not to mention a short commute between it and Westminster) expressed concern about the ongoing dispute. In the Gallery’s defence, he pointed out that they were one of the first employers to grant staff the living wage, however this was the result of a PCS campaign. Both Field and McDonnell saw this as a good example of Gallery, union and Government working together.
The National Gallery wishes to outsource work so that its staff can be more flexible. More staff are required to work after hours fundraising events, due to cuts in the Gallery’s funding. It seems only fair to point out here that if a certain Government hadn’t cut the funding in the first place, this dispute wouldn’t be taking place…
Back to the debate, McDonnell continued to make the staff’s case by explaining that outsourced staff very often do not have the expertise needed to work in the Gallery, with reports that some new staff had said it was not their job to answer visitor’s questions about the paintings. Having worked front of house myself at another national museum, I’d like to clarify that it is absolutely their job to know the exhibits inside out, to understand all the security and health and safety procedures, and to know where the toilets are.
Many of the visitor services staff in national museums and galleries are frankly overqualified for their job. To have to work as a guide when you are qualified to curate the exhibition can be demeaning. To have your job handed over to someone with no specialist knowledge whatsoever is simply an insult. Aside from the staff’s personal pride, it diminishes the visitor’s experience. This latter point was made by Labour MP Diane Abbott.
PCS state that they have worked with staff on an alternative plan which would cover the additional hours, but that the Gallery refuses to discuss it. The National Gallery has spent £1 million on outsourcing staff, money which could have been better spent improving existing services. For outing the cost of bringing in private security firm CIS, Candy Unwin was dismissed from her job. It is the belief of PCS that this was unfair, and a result of victimisation by the Gallery.
In response, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, stressed that he felt it inappropriate for DCMS to intervene. Vaizey defended the National Gallery, explaining that 315 staff members will be transferred to the private company, as such there would be no redundancies. The original terms and conditions of their employment are to be protected, although I have reason to believe this might not be the case.
League of Culture aren’t going to give up on this issue, and neither should PCS or the staff it represents at the National Gallery. There is a worrying trend for outsourcing in national museums and galleries to cut costs and it is leading to an unacceptable drain in talent.
This article was written by Vicky Prior, the League’s Director, and is not intended to wholly reflect the views of the League.