National Gallery strikers marched back to work on Monday of this week after beating bosses’ attacks on their terms and conditions. They had been on 111 days of strikes against privatisation.
Gallery bosses conceded nearly all their demands—including reinstating sacked PCS union rep Candy Udwin, who will return to her existing job.
Strikers voted to suspend their all-out action on Friday of last week, pending ministerial approval and a ballot of PCS members at the gallery.
Although privatisation has not been stopped, strikers have secured vital concessions.
Speaking at a Unite the Resistance rally in Manchester last Sunday, Candy said, “It is the best kind of deal if you are going to be working for a private company.
“We have won a guarantee that terms and conditions cannot be changed without consulting PCS. New starters will have broadly comparable terms and conditions to us, which is absolutely fantastic.
“We’ve won union recognition, and we won the Living Wage during the dispute. We have guarantees over staffing levels and rosters—and I’ll be going back to work as well.”
The concessions are important. The deal that gallery bosses signed with security firm Securitas in August threatened workers’ terms and conditions.
Around two thirds of gallery jobs will be outsourced in November when Securitas take over some gallery services.
It boasts that “private security companies are able to pay their staff at a lower rate” than public sector workers.
But the guarantee of “broadly comparable” contracts for new workers means they cannot be used to erode existing terms and conditions.
And the deal recognises PCS as the union in the gallery.
Strikers worried they would be forced to train for an SIA security guard’s license.
The deal means that they can choose which level of the license they apply for.
And there will be support for anyone who cannot complete the training.
But the reinstatement of Candy is one of the biggest victories of the strike. The fact that it was one of the strikers’ key demands is the reason she is getting her job back.
One striker said, “It was very emotional. To have Candy come back was fundamental to the campaign.”
The gallery workers are determined to continue the fight with a campaign in defence of museums and galleries across Britain.
Workers at museums and galleries in Wales and Scotland are currently fighting attacks on their pay.
And galleries such as York Art Gallery have introduced entrance fees as a result of funding cuts.
One striker said, “We feel like we’ve come a long way. But there’s also a feeling we have to take it further—and we are going to take it further.
“We’re still opposed to the fact that a private firm is going to be running the gallery.”
And Candy said, “We have to build a national campaign that says museums and galleries should be free and publicly-run. And we will be fighting for renationalisation at the National Gallery.”
'Union battles must point to political alternative’
The all-out strike at the National Gallery is a brilliant example of how to organise effective resistance in the workplace.
Solidarity from across the working class was key to helping the strikers beat the bosses.
More than 130,000 people signed an online petition in support of the strikers and against privatisation.
More importantly, supporters from trade union branches and campaign groups across the country donated £150,000 to the solidarity strike fund to help the strikers keep fighting.
Candy thanked Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell for their support “right from the beginning”.
She said, “It was fantastic to have the leader of the Labour Party tell TUC conference that they supported our strike.”
But Candy said that the main thanks from the strikers went to “the network of people who want to stand up for an alternative to austerity and the politics of the Tory party conference”.
She added, “Trade union battles are not just about terms and conditions.
“The reason we got the support we did is because we connected with the people who want to see a political alternative.”
The main lesson is that striking works. Candy said, “A lot of us feel we should have went for all-out action earlier.
“As soon as we did that, the support we got exploded.
“And if we can do that at just one gallery think what we could do as a movement if we all did it together.”
‘Strike showed you can fight’
“The National Gallery showed us that you can stand up and fight.
“They’ve stopped a two tier workforce and got their union rep reinstated.
“It will really make a difference to everyone who’s fighting back.”
Anne Drinkell, health campaigner, west London
‘Great to see workers win’
“Absolutely delighted to see a group of workers stand up and win.
“We’re part of the same industry—culture—which is being privatised.”
“That’s why we’ve been supporting them throughout their fight.”
Martin Brown, Equity actors’ union
‘Strike has inspired us’
“Things can seem a bit isolated in Wales, especially if you are on the museum’s smaller sites.
“But everything that’s happened has inspired us—and we’ve learned so much with the solidarity.
“They’ve fought so long, but got so much support.
“When you are under attack from an aggressive management—you have to fight back.”
Katy, PCS member, National Museum of Wales
‘This is just the beginning’
“The real question now is—what is next?
“This is just the beginning of the fight for us.
“We’re going to use our success to launch a campaign across museums and galleries.”
Clara Paillard, PCS culture president