Socialist Worker

Displaying resistance - why museum workers in Wales are on all-out strike

Few would have pictured museum and gallery workers in the front line of struggle in Wales. But with an all-out strike beginning last week these low paid staff are exhibiting a new wave of an old tradition, reports Nick Clark

Issue No. 2502

Museum workers are on indefinite strike across Wales in a row over pay

Museum workers are on indefinite strike across Wales in a row over pay (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Most people have never been on all-out strike. For Welsh ex-miner Peter Broome, this is the second time. “In 1984 we stayed out for a year,” he told Socialist Worker. “This is nothing to us.”

Peter is one of the ex-miners who run the Big Pit National Coal Museum in South Wales. He’s also one of the PCS union members from across Wales who are on indefinite strike to stop a serious attack on pay.

National Museum Wales bosses want to steal between £2,000 and £3,000 a year from workers by scrapping weekend premium payments. When they announced the plan two years ago, ex-miners at the Big Pit knew they had to fight back.

“We’re workers—don’t push us too far,” said Peter. “When the director general David Anderson came to the Big Pit two years ago I stood up and said, we’ll fight you all the way.”

The weekend premiums are no luxury. For many low paid museum workers, they’re a lifeline. Karen works at the National Museum Cardiff. She said, “We only get one Sunday off in every three, so we’re facing a massive cut in monthly income. More than £200 for me.

“It’s pretty much my food money for the month really. I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got bills and it’s not the best paid job to start with.”

Peter added, “We’re fighting for the lowest paid. There aren’t many ex-miners left. Losing the premium payments won’t really affect us as much because we’re at the age when we’ve got family grown up.

On the march to defend pay

On the march to defend pay (Pic: Socialist Worker)


“But there are people working with us who need the premium to live. We’re from one of the poorest parts of Europe really. The cleaners have to work on weekends to make up their money. Yet they’re telling them they’re taking £2,000 off them.”

For some workers, the fight is about more than just money. It’s about respect and being properly compensated for having to give up time with family, as Mike from the National Museum Cardiff explained.

“I work every Saturday, so I hardly ever get to see my two young daughters,” he said. “It’s awful. Every week they’re crying, saying are you not off today daddy? I have to say no, I’m sorry, and come into work.

“I’m going into work with tears in my eyes. I’m not even joking. And now I’m not even getting paid properly for it. At least I could pay for a better life for them. Three grand is a lot of money.”

He added, “The thing that hurts the most is that none of the managers work weekends, so they have no pay cut. They haven’t sacrificed anything. Management have picked on the lowest paid and made no sacrifice themselves to make savings.”

David Davies from the St Fagans National History Museum agreed. He said, “It’s the worst of the market force analysis that says that Monday to Friday is exactly the same as Saturday and Sunday. Which of course it’s not.

“If it were, management would work weekends as well. There’s a false premise behind it. Management want the very cheapest workforce they can get.”

PCS union members are drumming up support for their strike

PCS union members are drumming up support for their strike (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Museum bosses have tried using a number of dirty tricks to undermine the strike. When workers announced they were stepping up their fight earlier this month, bosses accused them of breaking an agreement reached at the Acas conciliation service.

But PCS branch vice chair Geraint Parfitt said that wasn’t true. “We went into Acas talks, and they basically broke the Acas agreement,” he said.

“The agreement with Acas was that we would ballot, which we did, that they would be looking at reducing our weekend working, and that they would arrange meetings by January for that. It never happened.”

Geraint said bosses offered a “buyout”—a lump sum in return for the weekend premiums. “They said they would have everybody’s individual buyout figures by 8 January,” he said. “Nobody had them by 8 January. So they broke the Acas agreement there. And now they’ve given us a worse offer.”

Workers began their all-out strike on Thursday of last week. At that point the bosses’ latest offer included a lump sum worth roughly two years’ premiums as “compensation”.

Geraint said, “They’re offering £4,000. But by the time I retire losing the premiums would cost me £56,000, which is what’s left on my mortgage”.

Bosses have demanded that they sign up to the deal by 20 May. If they won’t, they face dismissal and re-engagement on the new contracts. Workers have even had to attend individual “consultations” with bosses to make them sign.

“I’ve no deep understanding of contract law, but that’s not right,” said David. “You can’t do that. That’s exactly what they’re doing to the junior doctors in England. It’s imposing the contract and saying, stuff you. If you don’t like it, go.

“When you actually put that to people who are vulnerable anyway in terms of their economic status, that’s not collective bargaining—that’s collective bullying. It’s frightening people.”

Unfortunately bullying is not unusual at the National Museum in Cardiff, Mike explained. “There was a survey taken by the museum itself last year,” he told Socialist Worker. “It said 22 percent of workers had been bullied or harassed and 29 percent had witnessed bullying.

“This was almost a year ago and there’s been nothing done. A few people have been on a dignity at work course, but the bullying still goes on.”

Bosses are making the nasty atmosphere in Cardiff worse by using “pool” workers to break the strike. In the past the pool was made up of retired workers and others who could be called on to cover for sick full timers. Now it seems that bosses are using the pool to change the nature of the workforce.

“The new starters there are on zero hours contracts,” said Mike. “That’s what they’re trying to do—they’re trying to bring in everyone on zero hour contracts.

Strikers from the Big Pit National Coal Museum with Peter sat in front

Strikers from the Big Pit National Coal Museum with Peter sat in front (Pic: Socialist Worker)


“They ring up someone from the pool who’s only working two or three days a week. If they say, no I’m not coming in because of the strike, then they won’t be called again. So it ends up with the pool undermining us.”

Despite all this, the strikers aren’t backing down—and bosses show signs of wavering. Last week they claimed there was not enough money to keep paying the premiums.

The strike brought them back to the negotiating table in under a day. And the Welsh Labour Party, which runs the Welsh Assembly that funds the museums, has finally been made to say it will act.

Geraint and other PCS officials met with Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones on day one of the strike. After the meeting Geraint went to a strike rally where he told strikers, “Jones told us that after the election the government will step in. This has gone on too long, he said.”

This is welcome news from a Welsh Labour Party that had previously tried to wash its hands of the strike. But it’s not clear whether “stepping in” will mean coming in on the strikers’ side.

And some strikers said Jones’ confidence that Labour will still control the Welsh Assembly showed he takes people’s votes for granted.

Many more asked why Jones can’t intervene before the strike—or why he has never intervened over the past two years. David said, “Who’s responsible for funding the museums? The Welsh Assembly, which has done absolutely nothing.

“Their argument has been that the museums are managed at arm’s length. Well they must have very long arms, because they haven’t been within sight of what’s going on at all.”

PCS strikers are determined to win

PCS strikers are determined to win (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Peter agreed. “I’ve been a Labour supporter all my life,” he said. “I’m from Merthyr Tydfil where they had the first ever Labour MP, Keir Hardie. And I’m very close to voting Plaid Cymru in the Welsh elections for the first time.

“We’ve asked the Labour government to intervene with this. And they’ve done nothing. That’s the biggest disappointment to me.”

Peter explained how fighting the bosses’ attack has helped to strengthen the union in the museums.

“Mr Anderson has been brought in to make cuts,” he said. “He saw an easy target because the union has been pretty weak. But all of a sudden this has gone one step too far. We’ve got a good union here now. We are stronger than ever—it’s gelled everybody.”

But Peter also knows the all-out strike won’t be easy. Bosses’ threats to impose the contracts are intimidating. And there’s a danger that strikers’ resolve could be weakened if there’s not enough money in the strike fund to keep them going.

That’s why every trade unionist—and everyone else who supports the strikers—needs to do everything they can to raise solidarity.

Peter said, “We need the unions to step up to the mark. We need the Labour government to step up to the mark and give us a hand. And we have to fight as well. We’ll be going out collecting money.

“The junior doctors, good luck to them, have got strong support. We’d like that as well. With the public behind us, and the TUC and the unions behind us, we’ve got a good chance.

“I can tell you, we will stay out as long as it takes. We’re here to support the other workers. We’re miners at heart and we’re here to see them through. Mr Anderson is shaking a tiger by the tail.”

Donate to the strike fund: Unity Trust Bank, account Name: PCS Amgueddfa Cymru 107006 Branch, account Number: 2033182, sort code: 08-60-01 Invite a striker to speak at your union meeting. Email PCS branch chair Neil Harrison at tubz1917@live.com or branch secretary Peter Hill at dennishill20@hotmail.com

 


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