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Don’t let the National Gallery become a bosses’ playground

This article is over 9 years, 2 months old
The National Gallery provides free access to art for all. But its millionaire trustees want to privatise staff and cater to the rich—and workers are fighting back, writes Annette Mackin
Issue 2451
National Gallery workers on the picket line in Trafalgar Square
National Gallery workers on the picket line in Trafalgar Square (Pic: Guy Smallman)

For bosses at the National Gallery, image is everything. 

They trade off of the gallery’s reputation as a free institution accessible to everyone—not just those at the top. They proudly boast, “The paintings are owned by the public”.

But workers at the gallery know this is a lie. As one told Socialist Worker, “The gallery is only public in name. When the doors close it’s the rich’s private playground.” 

The workers are fighting plans to privatise 400 out of 600 staff. Director Nicholas Penny plans to put visitor services out to tender just days before the election.

Bosses have justified the outsourcing plans as a way to increase access to the gallery’s collections.

But this doesn’t mean better access for ordinary people or more educational trips for schools. It means driving down pay and conditions.

This includes putting on more ticketed events and making staff work late for less to facilitate private functions for the gallery’s super-rich sponsors, royalty and politicians.

It costs £35,000 to be a National Gallery sponsor and have exclusive access to it as a venue.

Current sponsors and partners include oil and gas firm Shell, finance company Credit Suisse and investment bank Axa.


And one of the Gallery’s trustees—hedge fund boss and Tory party patron Sir Michael Hintze—paid £2.5 million to have a room named after him and his wife Dorothy.

Meanwhile the gallery’s educational department has faced years of cutbacks. Yet bosses could spend up to £1 million bringing in private security firm CIS to run services.

One worker said, “Think of what we could do with that money in the educational department or for creative ideas to get people to come to the gallery who wouldn’t normally come.

“All the bosses are interested in is for the workers to be completely flexible so the rich can come and eat their canapes and drink their champagne.”

But staff at the gallery have fought back with strikes, completing their 22nd walkout on Friday of last week with a national day of collections. 

They planned another walkout on Friday of this week. 

The action has rattled the bosses who suspended PCS union rep Candy Udwin on the eve of their first five-day strike in January. 

But Candy has been with strikers on every picket line.

And workers warn management that if the privatisation plans are not halted they will escalate action after the election.

A rogues’ gallery of trustees

Workers at the National Gallery are taking on a Board of Trustees whose joint personal wealth runs into the billions—and whose influence extends far.

Thirteen super-rich bosses sit on the board, appointed by the prime minister. 

These include former Bank of England boss Sir Mervyn King or, as he’s also known, Baron King of Lothbury. 

King retired after quitting as Bank of England governor, pocketing a £6.2 million pension paid for by the public. 

 David Cameron also approved the appointment of accountant Charles Sebag-Montefiore as a trustee in 2012. 

Back in 2006 Sebag-Montefiore hosted a dinner party at his Kensington house for just eight guests—among them were Cameron, Michael Gove and Prince Charles and Camilla.

Workers can beat National Gallery bosses despite their huge wealth.

As one worker said, “We have to take them on. They can’t have it their own way—we have to resist them.”

Showing the resistance

Strikes have forced bosses to promise to pay National Gallery workers the London Living Wage.

The gallery was the only museum in London not to pay it. 

But not even this is guaranteed—and if privatisation goes ahead pay could be driven down further.

A serious escalation of strikes is needed to beat privatisation and win reinstatement for Candy Udwin. Solidarity will be crucial. 

Strikers have already been invited to speak at union and campaign meetings around Britain.

During a strike last month, PCS members in Birmingham put on a special event for people to meet National Gallery strikers. They raised some £700 for the strike fund—part of £3,000 raised for the strike fund last week.

Strikers also went to talk to a meeting of council workers in the Unison union in Barnet, north London. They also plan to strike against outsourcing this week. 

One striker told Socialist Worker, “People say they are very inspired by what we’re doing, by going out on strike and showing resistance to what’s happening here at the gallery.”

How you can help the strikers

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