Strikes at the National Gallery (ctd.)

August 27 2014

Image of Strikes at the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

In the London Review of Books, Conrad Landin reveals plans by the Gallery's room wardens to go on strike during the forthcoming Rembrandt exhibition. A new ballot on strike action has been called, and although the Gallery has taken steps to outsource security for the Rembrandt show to a non-unionised grouping, the remainging PCS staff are determined to cause disruption:

'It’s clear they’ll [the National Gallery] do anything to make sure the Rembrandt exhibition opens every day as normal, and they know we’re holding an indicative ballot for strike action,’ another worker told me. ‘They’re launching a new membership scheme at the same time, and so they’re evidently willing to go to great expense to make sure everything goes smoothly. Of course, it will still be embarrassing for them if the exhibition is open but the rest of the gallery is closed, and we’re picketing outside.’

While I recognise that uncertainty over the incoming private security contractor must be unnerving for the current room wardens, I am still suprised by their union's zeal for strike action, which surely, in the long run, has been self-defeating. It's perfectly understandable that the National should want to protect its blockbuster exhibitions from strike action (as happened during Leonardo in 2012). And now that a private security firm has its foot in the door, it won't be surprising (assuming it performs well) if it gradually takes on more responsibility over the rest of the gallery.

The recent decision by the National Gallery to allow photography saw a chorus of well-briefed disapproval from some room wardens (or their union representatives), who seem happy to act almost as a fifth column at the National. No other department at the Gallery (indeed, any UK public gallery I can think of) walks out on strike or publicly criticises the executive with such regularity. Further grievances, we learn in the LRB, include whether room wardens should be allowed to sit down (I used to think yes, until I saw a warden playing Sudoku once), and astonishingly (as The Times reported recently) the fact that the Director, Nick Penny, didn't use headed notepaper when he wrote to thank a warden for helping to prevent damage to a picture (he used a postcard instead).

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