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Trade union resistance in the arts and culture sector

Indefinite strikes, high-profile campaigns and trade union victories. Tracy Edwards, a negotiator and organiser for UK public-sector union PCS, writing in a personal capacity, takes a look.

Members of the PCS union striking against privatisation at London's National Gallery

Members of the PCS union striking against privatisation at London’s National Gallery

Along with the rest of the public sector, the arts and culture sector has undergone massive cutbacks over a number of years. Arts Council England, the arm’s-length state funding body, estimates more than four fifths of English subsidised arts companies will lose their funding completely. Vital regional museums, galleries and other initiatives have been forced to close or scale back dramatically.

Increasingly, the government is introducing new measures helping employers adopt a commercial entreprise model as a way of eroding workers’ pensions, terms and conditions – and privatising jobs through the back door. Museums and galleries have become aggressively profit driven in order to raise revenues lost from the state. Access to arts and culture remains out of reach for most working-class people.

Growing corporate influences, such as the BP sponsorship at the Tate galleries and the British Museum, have influenced a drive to adopt their mentality – cutting workers’ pay, terms and conditions in the process. The increase in privatisations of visitor and security services shows this influence is growing.

Job cuts, zero-hour contracts and precarious conditions are now the norm across most workplaces. In the past, zero-hour contracts were used by some artistic workers to allow them some flexibility to suit their performance timetables. This practice is now in abundance across the sector. Flexible working is important, but should be on our terms, not the bosses’.

Fighting back

Despite this, workers in the arts and culture sector are some of the most militant across the movement. Members of my union, the PCS, took 111 days’ strike action at the National Gallery in London last year. They raised over £100,000 for their strike fund, and forced a debate in parliament over privatisation plans and trade union victimisation.

This forced the gallery to reinstate their sacked trade union rep – and concede fundamental protections and guarantees on trade union recognition, jobs, pay and conditions unseen anywhere else, to mitigate their transfer to an outsourcing firm.

At the time of writing, PCS members at the National Museum Wales are entering their eighth week of indefinite strike action to defend their higher weekend payment rates. Strike action was called following an aggressive management attempt to bully them into signing new contracts costing workers up to thousands of pounds a year in pay.

Like their PCS comrades at the National Museum of Scotland, these workers have combined innovative industrial action tactics, high-profile campaigning and political pressure – and could be on the verge of accepting an historic deal that could settle the dispute. The Welsh government has found an extra £1.5 million. PCS is now in the process of balloting members on the deal.

These developments are an inspiration to the rest of the trade union movement, and provide a glimpse of what is possible in the trade unions. Many of these workers are artists themselves, or have a keen interest in the arts. They take pride in their jobs protecting and maintaining some of the world’s most beautiful and priceless works of art and they are passionate about what they do.

Taking the struggle forward

Workers across the sector are questioning the use of zero-hour contracts, and are demanding permanent jobs, guaranteed hours, minimum standards and safe workplaces.

Since the outset of austerity, the sector has seen an increase in aggressive and abusive visitors each year. PCS is fighting for clear, robust policies and procedures in place to protect staff and to support them in dealing with dangerous situations.

PCS is arguing for central talks to take place with the UK government’s Department for Media, Culture and Sport to address our sector-wide issues. We will seek a mandate, through a consultative ballot of all our members, on our national demands in summer 2016.

The London and south east England region of Britain’s trade union umbrella organisation, the TUC, supports a PCS-initiated campaign called ‘Show Culture Some Love’. It raises the need for state investment in the arts and culture. The campaign was launched in March 2015, and has the backing of four UK trade unions: the PCS, technicians’ and designers’ union Bectu, entertainers’ union Equity and the Musicians’ Union.

This year, the campaign held its second conference. Hearing the various reports from across the trade unions as well as community campaigns to save local music clubs and arts services brings into focus the importance of arts, culture and education in our society. Tory funding cuts are destroying our communities. The elite don’t see the need for plebs like us to access arts and culture, wishing it to remain the property of the the super-rich.

The campaigns and struggles taking place across the sector can cut across this and help to develop a political trade union voice for arts and culture. PCS hopes to play a key role in harnessing that energy to work alongside our sister unions in developing strategies to fight back on a coordinated basis against austerity.

The growing militancy of this sector, combined with the ongoing political and industrial situation, could see it play a key role in providing a visionary alternative. That could be a pole of attraction for other workers and young people to get involved in fighting for an alternative to poverty pay and job insecurity.

What we stand for

  • Joint strike action, and coordinated industrial and political campaigns, across trade unions representing arts and culture workers
  • A UK minimum wage of no less than £10 an hour, with no exemptions for age or training, in line with TUC policy
  • Trade union membership rights, and employers’ recognition of unions’ right to bargain for members, for all arts and culture workers
  • An end to insecure employment practices, like temporary and zero-hour contracts – for guaranteed career progression and guaranteed hours – for flexibility on our terms, not the bosses’
  • Safe and secure workplaces, free from bullying and harassment
  • Guaranteed minimum working conditions for all staff
  • Publicly owned and democratically run arts and cultural institutions – kick the private profiteers out of arts and culture!
  • Defend and extend free admission to museums, galleries and other institutions

Tracy Edwards is secretary of the PCS culture, media and sport workers’ group executive committee. She is a member of the Socialist Party (of England and Wales) and general union GMB.

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