The 'National Gallery 27'

July 16 2018

Video: National Gallery 27

The National Gallery in London is being sued by a group of lecturers, who say they were unfairly dismissed and discriminated against. It's not the most straightforward case, but I think the crux of it is this: the lecturers (there are 27 of them) say they were directly employed by the National Gallery. But when earlier this year the National Gallery sought to re-organise the education department, the lecturers were treated as freelance employees, and summarily and unfairly dismissed. So the legal case is about first addressing their unfair dismissal, and also about forcing the National Gallery to recognise that they had always been direct employees, and therefore entitled to all the usual in-work benefits that employees get (such as holiday time, employee rights, and so on).

The case has been covered today in The Guardian, and the Financial Times. But I think a good summary of the case is on the lecturers' crowdfunding page (they need to raise £65,000 to fund their campaign):

We are asking to be recognised as employees (and at a minimum  ‘workers’), and not self-employed. We are bringing a case of unfair dismissal and claim that the National Gallery has discriminated against members of our group, in respect to longevity of service, sex and age. We have rights to consultation and retrospective holiday pay.

Despite the day-to-day reality of our integrated working relationship, the National Gallery insists we were self employed. We have been denied the protection and rights we were due as employees or workers.  

We were paid through the National Gallery payroll, taxed at source and wore staff passes. We were required to attend staff training and team meetings and received formal reviews of our work. But we had no job security or employment rights, including holiday pay and sick pay.

The Gallery has shown no interest in conciliation, despite our attempts to raise concerns personally with the Director and senior staff. It is with disappointment and sadness that their behaviour has led us to this point of bringing a legal claim.

The Gallery has replaced our large group of long-serving educators with a small number of in-house educator roles on greatly reduced salary and terms, to which we do not consent.

In response, the National Gallery has said:

"The Gallery has been issued with a number of different claims from a number of freelance workers who have been providing a range of different services for the Gallery (and other museums and galleries across London) on an ad hoc basis for a number of years.

It is our understanding that the claims have arisen out of the Gallery's wish to change from offering ad hoc work to offering more secure employment, with additional pension and worker benefits. This change reflects the Gallery's strategy to develop our programmes to increasingly reach new audiences and make the most of digital technology to widen our engagement.

The entire group were consulted for their views together and individually over the change for a period of three months between October 2017 and January 2018. These jobs were offered to all of our existing freelance service providers last year. We still have vacancies which are available, although unfortunately not all of the group have expressed an interest in these.

At the present time, it is our understanding that the tribunal is actually scheduled for the end of the year. The session on Monday 16 July is an administrative session to discuss process.

The Gallery is not yet in receipt of the details of each complaint, but believes that we have acted both lawfully and fairly in changing our service provision to one of secure employment."

Reading the National Gallery's statement, it might seem that their course was not unreasonable. But you need here to consider what the National Gallery is not saying. What they're not telling you in the above statement is that the pay on offer to the lecturers in the new structure was considerably less than they were getting before.

In terms of the legal case, it seems to me that the lecturers have a strong case. There was a similar recent case, involving Pimlico Plumbers in London. Pimlico Plumbers insisted that all its plumbers work as self-employed plumbers, despite them wearing company uniform and driving company vans. This allowed the company to not treat its plumbers as normal employees, which is cheaper for the company, and gives the plumbers less rights. The plumbers, however, won their case. And the lecturers' case is very similar.

As is usually the case with these things, this dispute is about money. The National Gallery wants to run a more efficient ship. And so it should. But this is a public institution, which has a need also for good lecturers. And the National Gallery, as regular readers will know, is awash with cash, and better off than it has ever been. Just last week it acquired a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi almost entirely from its own funds, and having paid £1.6m more than the picture recently fetched at auction. But it seems to consistenly make unforced errors in the way it handles its organisational functions. The handling of the warders case in 2014 was a case in point, though in that case I had more sympathy with the National Gallery's overall goals than many others.

But in the case of the lecturers, however, it's hard to see what the National Gallery gains here, either by its heavy-handedly going on with the department restructure, or by contesting the lecturers' case. The National Gallery had some of the best lecturers there were, a dedicated, hard-working team who I always found impressive. They've now junked all that, and now stand to win only a slew of negative headlines, and a large legal bill. It's at moments like this that you want a board of trustees to shake the management by the lapels, and say, 'what the hell are you doing?'. But there'll be no chance of that; as any reading of trustee meeting minutes shows, they're content to nod through what the staff suggest. That's what happens if you reserve trustee-ships for the great and the good.

Update - here's something worth considering; institutions like the National Gallery rightly make every effort to broaden the diversity of both their staff and their audience. But one of the lecturers suing the National Gallery is Leslie Primo. Leslie was the first black employee at the National Gallery, and it's only black lecturer. He was also the last. 

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