20 March 2015
Polly Toynbee’s latest Guardian article about the National Gallery:
Welcome to the new director of the National Gallery. Dr Gabriele Finaldi, from the Prado, knows it well from working there as a curator with Neil MacGregor until 2002. “I feel deeply honoured” he said. “I eagerly look forward to working with the trustees and the staff to strengthen the gallery’s bond with the public.”
But that bond risks fracturing, between trustees, staff, gallery and public. The gallery assistants return to the picket line from Tuesday to Sunday next week, closing most rooms. The gallery is outsourcing all its 400 staff in visitor services, including the gallery assistants, many of whom have worked there for years, becoming steeped in knowledge about the paintings they watch over. Once outsourced, the staff can by law be dispersed to anywhere by their new employer: people with long experience of guiding visitors can be sent to guard a supermarket car park. New staff taken on in the gallery can be paid less, with worse conditions: that’s how outsourcing works.
Finaldi will know many assistants and he should insist on stepping in now to stop this. Talks continue at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, but the current director refuses to consider the staff’s alternative plan. The dispute has been handled exceptionally badly: how does it help to suspend union rep Candy Udwin from her job in the middle of this?
The gallery’s grant is cut severely, so it needs to make money with paid evening events. Staff are willing – but naturally expect extra pay. No other major national museum has outsourced its entire visitor team, and the National is the only one not paying the living wage. A security company with no museum experience has been brought in to the guard the Sainsbury paid-for exhibition wing, kept open during strikes: CIS is a company that mainly provides heavies to guard empty buildings.
One trustee told me that CIS was brought in as a warning. The union says the trustees have never been allowed to hear the staff case, to meet their representatives or to see their alternative proposals. Meanwhile on strike days outside the gallery, the public offer strong support. Donations have flooded in to help keep the low-paid strikers going without pay. The tender to put out the services to the likes of CIS, Serco or G4S goes out two days before the general election.
The National Gallery as a great British emblem should resist becoming yet another icon for Britain’s low-pay, zero-hours contemptuous treatment of valuable employees. Disputes get deadlocked when management feels its pride and power to manage is threatened: winning becomes more important than finding a peaceful solution. Dr Finaldi may hope it’s all sorted out before he officially takes over in August – but he should step in now, with a fresh eye and goodwill from all sides. What better way to set out than by welcoming the assistants back into the fold of the gallery?