Rembrandt: The Late Works will open at the National Gallery on 15 October. It has been described as the first major show focused on the artist’s later years. The curators say it will ‘illuminate his versatile mastery by dividing paintings, drawings and prints thematically in order to examine the ideas that preoccupied him’. The gallery’s workforce meanwhile are preoccupied by plans to outsource security and visitor services to a private company.
The official line is that terms and conditions will not be affected by the proposed structural changes. But gallery workers on a picket line last month told me that their bosses have spoken frankly behind the scenes about their desire to change terms and conditions. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which is recognised at the National Gallery to negotiate pay and conditions, has resisted all such moves. But if a private firm took over running the services, the union might be forced to compromise.
Last autumn, the Imperial War Museum pushed through a similar outsourcing package. PCS reps are more hopeful about halting reforms at the National Gallery; they told me their branch at Trafalgar Square is much stronger. Encouraged by the sympathetic press coverage of the War Museum dispute, PCS is deploying a public relations offensive as well as traditional labour withdrawal. A petition has been launched, and workers have got support from other unions and the Lost Arts project.
But then outspoken union reps were warned by managers they could face disciplinary action if they talked to the media. They were told their contracts included a ‘confidentiality clause’, which said all press enquiries had to be dealt with by the gallery’s communications team. Fair enough if it’s a question about an exhibition directed at a steward on duty. But union reps can hardly rely on the press office to give workers’ side of the story.
The gallery insists that nothing has changed, and they’ve always required the union negotiator – not an employee of the gallery, but a full-time union official – to speak on behalf of members. Union activists tell me this is far from the case, and a casual search turns up workers quoted by name in press reports.
Aggrieved staff will have no role in the Rembrandt exhibition in the autumn. The private security firm CIS has advertised for new staff to join on three-month contracts. The National Gallery press office says they regularly hire outside contractors, but a gallery invigilator insists otherwise. ‘They occasionally get in a few agency staff for big shows, but this is different: they’re hiring a whole new workforce to do the job we normally do.’ PCS has estimated this will cost the gallery £500,000.
Workers are also concerned that CIS’s terms and conditions could be an indicator of the way a permanently outsourced workforce would be treated. National Gallery employees are currently allowed chairs, though not long ago they clashed with management on the issue. ‘We thought we’d resolved this,’ a union source tells me. But the ad on the CIS website says ‘this is not a seated role.’
‘It’s clear they’ll 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.’