After over 100 days of strike action National Gallery workers voted to return to work last month having won nearly all their demands. Socialist Review and five strikers discussed the lessons learned.
When did you all join the union?
Patrick: Nine years ago!
Eva: I can’t remember if it was before the first strike or not… Less than a year ago.
Lucy: Did you join because of the privatisation?
Julie: The thing that pushed me to finally join the union was the imminent strike day back in July. I felt like that was the tipping point for deciding whether I was with the union or not. I did a lot of talking that day, a lot of debating, and eventually decided yes. And that’s why I handed in my filled out application form on the picket line that day.
Lucy: Why hadn’t you joined before?
Julie: Because of the impression I had of the union. When everything is working ok you don’t believe people who say, “You need the union; management are not going to look out for you; things are going to go wrong…” I felt like it was a lot of grumpy old men with a chip on their shoulder. But things change, don’t they?
Lucy: Speaking for the older branch committee, we had a discussion a year ago about why the younger people wouldn’t join the union. Some people said, oh, they’re just not interested, they’re not political.
Mary: I think it helps if you’ve got younger people asking others to join — it seems more “with it” somehow.
Once you decided that you had to strike over the privatisation, how easy was it to organise?
Eva: Getting everyone involved was hard. Part of it is finding different people’s strengths — some are good at speaking; some are good at recruiting to the union; some are good at organising rotas.
Julie: I think that’s really important. Having been to a couple of the protests and picket lines, the thing that really got me involved was the art exhibition we held in November because I was excited about it and it was something I could go out and get other people involved in too. It gave me a sense of achievement.
Lucy: The evening protests were really important. There had been an argument in the union that people wouldn’t come to political protests, but they did. And setting up a Facebook page and the 38 Degrees petition, which we did before the strike began, was really important because it helped communicate with staff but also gave us a public profile. We didn’t know it then, but those networks were so important for getting solidarity and raising money later.
How important was the status of the National Gallery as a public institution?
Lucy: I think people were shocked that the National Gallery, which they saw perhaps as an elite institution, was acting like a union-busting private company. Some people supported us because it was the National Gallery, but the majority connected to the idea of privatisation, and so many people said, “The same thing is happening to us.” We heard stories of privatisation from all over the world.
Julie: It was fantastic going to Paris and finding that, although they didn’t have the same problems yet, they were anticipating them, and wanted to learn from our fight.
Lucy: Combining the action we took with the political campaign was the key thing that we did right, and I believe that you can do that for any group of workers. The Camden parking wardens, for example, not the most popular group of workers in the world, did get support when they struck because people can understand that not getting occupational sick pay and being paid poverty wages is wrong.
What you said earlier about young people joining the union is visible in society at large at the moment, for example with Corbyn’s supporters. Lots of young people who may never have been in a union see the Tories’ anti-union bill as an attack on civil rights and something that must be fought. There’s a wider political understanding.
Eva: Absolutely, that’s what I think is so important for me about ending up in this campaign. In a way we miss the innocent old days when we didn’t know anything about all this stuff with HR and management and our rights… Now, we have learned lessons that will stay with us for the rest of our lives — to know that these are our rights and this is how things should be.
Mary: A lot of younger people aren’t aware of how good it was for my generation — we were treated fairly well, we could afford to buy things for ourselves, and we weren’t saddled with huge university debts. I think it’s important to make them aware of how things should be.
Julie: I think we’ve still got a long way to go because they really exploit the younger generation who don’t know what to expect from a workplace. I’ve talked to people in one department in the gallery run by a private company and they’re young; often in their first job; often they’ve just come to this country; and they are treated appallingly. Their upper management on site is getting paid less than us! They’re all on zero-hours contracts, they can be sent to any workplace the company chooses, and they have to stand all day every day. Their fear is that if you start unionising or standing up for your rights there won’t be any work for you — you won’t even be fired, just told there’s no more hours that week and you’re not needed any more.
But do you think these workers can organise?
Julie: I think there’s potential, but they are in a very precarious position, so what they need is for it to be not just gallery-wide but throughout the company. Otherwise the company could just replace them.
Lucy: At the Tate they have succeeded in organising the zero-hours private staff with the backing of the union and the full-time staff. What was interesting was the impact of our strike on how they organised. They did some of the same things as us — they put up a Facebook page, made a banner, and on the eve of their first protest, which they’d advertised on Facebook, the Tate (rather than the private company) intervened and asked for a meeting with the union. Hopefully there is now a deal which will improve their pay significantly.
How did you organise your strike?
Mary: At first it tended to be a minority who turned out on the picket lines but later on, and particularly when we went all-out and we organised a roster, we got lots more people involved.
Eva: It definitely makes you feel more responsible knowing that you have an assigned day and just planning ahead in general with every task so everyone knows who is responsible for what.
Lucy: Having an event every week with a particular focus helped mobilise people — both strikers and supporters. So for example we had designated days for groups of workers — health workers or teachers.
Mary: We also got to know our colleagues a lot better, and people got to do things they never would have done before — like speaking at meetings around the country.
Eva: Now that we’re back at work we relate to each other differently; we know each other from the picket lines or from going to breakfast after the picket lines every day.
Lucy: We didn’t have a strike committee and maybe we should have done. We had a branch committee which was really important, but also we went to breakfast every day after the picket and that acted as an informal organising meeting. And then when we went on all-out strike we had a strikers’ meeting every week. They were extremely well attended because people needed to find out what was happening. If we’d done those earlier that would have been a good thing and maybe got more people involved at an earlier stage.
Julie: The enthusiasm for the strike rose dramatically once we went on all-out strike. Before that, when it was a few days here and there, people were asking have we won yet? Are we going back yet? We were worried that after a couple of weeks of all-out strike people would start drifting back to work, but everyone said no, keep going! We haven’t won this point, right, stay out, see you next week!
What do you think changed people?
Julie: I think it was the boldness of an all-out strike, which makes it feel like a last stand rather than stopping and starting.
Lucy: The branch committee was really important. We didn’t have time off in work for branch committee meetings so they were quite sporadic before the strike. The real involvement increased massively during the strike. We had huge debates about how to go forward, and we usually reached a consensus. That meant that we always had clear proposals to put to the strikers.
Eva: It was like having a part-time job being on the branch committee — or sometimes devoting a full eight-hour day to writing up lists of demands and so on. When you’re actually in work it is very hard to do all of that in your spare time.
Lucy: And some of our new reps were elected during the strike, even though they’d been reluctant at first.
So what’s your advice about the best form of action to take?
Julie: I think striking is really important. I don’t think it’s the first thing you should do; it still needs to be reserved so that it works as a threat, but it’s a stronger threat if the employers know that you’re prepared to do it. But once you decide to do it you have to go for it.
Mary: Do you think it’s a good idea to stay out even when negotiations are going on?
Lucy: Once you’re out I think that unless you’ve won, having the threat of the strike ongoing is important — in the end that’s how we won, not by drawing back but by stepping things up. But we debated about all-out strike action for quite a long time.
Eva: Yes, about when would be best to go for it. Timing is important and there were lots of different opinions on that.
Julie: Our strike felt so linked to the politics at the time. We felt this had come from the Tory agenda, and then we had some wobbles from management and we got the Living Wage in the run-up to the General Election when everyone thought that Labour would win. And then the Tories got back in and it was back to the same from management. I think we should have gone on all-out strike before the election to coincide with that shift in mood.
Lucy: The chair of the South East Regional TUC has said there were two moments when he was really worried about the strike: the first was when the Tories won and the second was when we went on all-out strike. He said that he’s learned from us to be bold.
Julie: There is a case for doing a tester strike before going on all-out. Perhaps a small strike will force management to back down anyway, but also it’s a way of testing your support and of building up a political campaign around the dispute.
Lucy: You need the political campaign in place. And we had to prove that we could raise the support and the money — and we did: we raised nearly £180,000. £25,000 of that in cash delivered to the picket line.
Mary: It was invaluable Candy having all the contacts that she has, and that kept up the momentum of the strike.
Lucy: We mobilised the various networks — the union network, networks like Unite the Resistance, the Socialist Workers Party, we tapped into the artists networks… The 38 Degrees petition was important and showed how much support we had beyond the trade union networks. About half the money we raised came from union donations and collections and half came from individuals. There’s a brilliant graph showing PayPal donations to our strike fund month by month. July is the lowest — £1,500; August [when the all-out strike began] is £22,000 and September is nearly £40,000. This is a graph which proves that all-out strikes work! There is an argument in the movement that you have to raise the money before you can take more action; our experience tells us that you have to take more action and then you raise the money.
And the same goes for how you build the union — you don’t recruit first and that leads to action; you take action and show that the union works.
Eva: Yes. Some people will join the union because ideologically they believe in it and agree with it, but other people are just very practical — do I need it and is it effective?
Lucy: Yes — and how much money will I lose? We’re very low paid and so raising the money was really important and we had support from our union, the PCS — we had half pay throughout the course of the strike and that was crucial.
Patrick: Some people joined because they got sick of the intimidation tactics from the gallery. Members have said to me that they were quite happy not to be in the union until they started getting letters from management saying PCS members were intimidating people by putting up posters and so on, and that made them want to join. The gallery sent out lots of letters saying, “If you go on strike you won’t get any money”, “If you go on strike you won’t get this or that”, and the more they sent out the more people joined the union.
Lucy: One of the nastiest things they did was stop the whole month of August’s pay without warning us, and then they set up meet and greet sessions with the private company and offered people loans if they went back to work. I think they really believed they were starving us or threatening us back to work. From then on people’s determination to stay out until we won was 100 percent.
Patrick: And you got a bar of chocolate if you went to the meet and greet session!
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your victory?
Eva: We have certain guarantees now about our pay and conditions.
Lucy: We have won “broadly comparable” terms and conditions for new starters. We don’t know what exactly that will mean yet, but what you were saying earlier about the conditions that some of the other private staff at the gallery work under, that’s what Securitas conditions would have been. Hopefully we have avoided that for the new staff. And we’ve got guarantees for our own pay and conditions that they can’t change without the agreement of the union, which is as strong as it gets. If the new staff are on similar pay and conditions then it will obviously help make the union stronger in future. We’ll have a job to do to overcome any divisions.
Eva: If their conditions aren’t that great we’ll be able to say to them look what we can win if we fight.
Lucy: We didn’t stop the privatisation. In effect we didn’t have a director for a year because he announced his resignation a week before the privatisation so that meant we had no one to negotiate with. And then they brought forward signing the contract with the private company a week before the new director started. I think what we can say positively is that it was very important that Jeremy Corbyn as newly-elected leader of the Labour Party supported us at the TUC conference and in public, but that was after the contract was signed so it was too late to stop the privatisation. For the future the lesson shouldn’t be that you can’t stop privatisation. The strike changed us as a workforce — you could feel that in the meetings — we had turned ourselves into a collective rather than a bunch of individuals.
And what’s next on the agenda?
Lucy: We’re trying to launch a national campaign of museums and galleries, but in the meantime we sent out support for the Welsh National Gallery’s strike through our petition contacts, and their petition went up to 10,000 over the weekend as a result. Obviously we want to support other galleries and museums that are out on strike, but we also think there’s a need for a campaign to keep museums and galleries free and publically run and funded. Within that we’ll be campaigning to overturn the privatisation at the National Gallery.
Julie: We have to pre-empt the introduction of entry charges. We’ve already seen that in York and we have to stop it before it snowballs. We’ve been given so much by other places; we want to give back.
FAVOURITE MOMENTS DURING THE DISPUTE
"Going on strike for Pride. A couple of strikers had started working with Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and organising around Pride and I said I was going to announce it on the picket line and one said, ‘Are you sure? You get people moaning in the locker rooms…’ But when I did it got a big cheer on the picket line and I think he realised it was a good thing to do."
"It was really nice to be on the Pride march with the miners and the other trade unionists who’d come to support LGSM. I felt like a proper trade unionist that day."
"The day that Corbyn won was fantastic. We did a cake stall outside the gallery, and it was the same day as the big refugee rally. We were on the sidelines of the events, but it was a really special thing to feel we were part of it. I think we got more attention, questions, interest and money that day even than we did on Pride."
"I did like going into parliament. It was the first time I’d ever met an MP, John McDonnell. That was brilliant. You go past parliament and you never really know what goes on inside there, so it was brilliant to see how it works — and a little bit odd at times. I went in there and took loads of pictures — and got told off for that. You grow up in London and go past there all the time and to actually be in there was great."
"Oh my god — Yanis Varoufakis! That was my favourite time. He came to one of our strike meetings towards the end. He talked about the negotiations he had as minister of finance in Greece with the IMF and the similarities there can be between these huge political negotiations and our local dispute — the tactics, and so on."
All names have been changed for anonymity