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As hundreds of thousands of teachers, civil servants and academics walked out of their jobs on strike in February, something equally historic happened outside the British Museum.
A walkout of staff frustrated at low wages shut the museum down for several days. It was the first strike action at the museum in a decade, and by far the biggest and most effective in recent memory.
Museum workers may not be the first that come to mind when people imagine workplace exploitation, but those staff at the British Museum are part of a new wave of once unorganised culture workers who have been joining trade unions at an astonishing rate.
Byline Times understands the previously small culture workers branch of PCS is now one of the fastest growing branches at the entire civil service union, with new branches opening at museums across London like The Greenwich Naval College and The Design Museum. One organiser at a prominent London museum said their branch membership had tripled in the last five years.
But what underpins that shocking rise not only reflects the changing nature of working exploitation and our cultural institutions but could shape the future of the trade union movement.
Working out exactly where this all came from on the surface seems to have one obvious answer: austerity. Decades of cuts have had a huge impact across society, but the arts have been one of the worst affected areas.
“A lot of the cuts fell on local government, but those particularly fell on local arts projects because they are often seen as the first thing you can live without if your a council strapped for cash”, explains Charles Umney, a Professor of International Work and Employment at Leeds University.
The Arts Council, a Government culture fund, saw its £341m a year grant-in aid budget fall to between 30% and 50% of its real-terms value in 2010, while cash-strapped local councils have cut arts spending by £860m, or 38.5% in real terms in that time.
And those tight budgets have hit staff on the ground, with pay at best stagnating or even falling for many roles in the sector. Many don’t even earn the London living wage of £11.95 an hour. And as with so many of the wave of strike actions currently, that pay constraint became impossible to sustain in the face of a cost of living crisis.
Organisers we spoke to described staff unable to afford travelling, rent or even buy lunches for their children, as a growing number are being forced to apply for Universal Credit to top up their wages or even use foodbanks.
“I know someone who has had to leave because they can’t afford to commute anymore. They literally physically didn’t have the money for the train ticket”, one worker at a major London museum told me. “People literally cannot afford to work in these jobs”.
It’s an anecdote Byline Times hears time and again from those we spoke to, with everyone from security guards to even the better paid “back of house” academic staff leaving to find better work elsewhere.
It’s not something restricted to museums. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA), a cultural charity that works to address social challenges, has found itself in the middle of a very public dispute with its staff over the last few months.
“Junior staffers, their nominal salaries are lower than they were three years by 14-15%, and that’s without counting inflation”, said one RSA worker we spoke to, who asked for anonymity. “And then not long ago a new management came in, kind of while we were in the middle of that process, and I think did quite a lot of work for us by really stamping down on the idea of working on these things together”.
Over the course of last year, well over half of RSA staff who joined the IWGB trade union branch have been fighting for union recognition with a management accused of intimidation and refusing to voluntarily recognise the trade union (despite the RSA’s own CEO previously saying he was a supporter of trade unions).
And while the situation at the RSA, as with everyone we spoke to, was the result of years of long-term organising and recruiting, record low pay in a cost of living crisis by far had the biggest impact.
Add to all that the “huge cultural shift around striking”, as the RSA worker put it, that has come in the aftermath of months of strikes across everyone from rail workers and postal staff, and many organisers said their members felt they had a newfound belief in their ability to win better wages through strikes.
Meanwhile, another impact of the drop in Government funding is that culture organisations have been forced to rely more heavily on corporate partnerships to at least partially fill the hole. That in itself has had two effects, according to those we spoke to. First off, tighter budgets and increased private sector involvement meant that the culture and working conditions in these organisations has radically changed in recent years. Drives for efficiency mean staff are expected to, as one interviewee put it, “do more with less” while hundreds more have been made redundant or had their roles outsourced to cheaper, private contractors.
Management’s decision to try to axe hundreds of jobs at the Tate in 2020 led to a 42-day strike action at the museum, which forced the museum to make an improved offer to the workers affected. While the museum said the job cuts were said to be a necessity in the face of Covid, one of the major sticking points for striking workers was that large sections of senior management were earning the kind of record six figure salaries more commonplace in the mainstream private sector. That concern was shared by a lot of the various culture staff we spoke to.
In turn, and somewhat indirectly, the growing share of corporate funding in cultural organisations has also helped galvanise staff to organise. Corporate influence in the arts has had its fair share of public controversy in recent years. From the millions donated by the controversial Sackler family to museums like the V&A, to a string of protests at The Science Museum over its links to the fossil fuel industry, including on a exhibit on climate change sponsored by Shell that came with a gagging clause stopping the museum from criticising the company’s role in the crisis.
But the union organisers we spoke to suggested the topic was one that was a catalyst for staff, themselves frustrated with the sponsorships their leadership were taking on, to unionise and find a way to publicly vent their collective frustrations. “I think with the people who work in these organisations, there’s often like a sense of collective ownership, a sense of stewardship” the RSA staffer said. “And people are really sick of encroaching influence from businesses coming in and are now making their voices heard”.
The culture branch of the PCS has helped run Culture Unstained, a campaign group that tries to pressure culture organisations to sever ties with the fossil fuel industry. Just this year, in January the campaign pressured the Royal Opera House to end a multi-decade partnership with BP, and then in June the infamous sponsorship of the British Museum came to end in June. Meanwhile the British Museum branch has previously shared its support for the repatriation of artefacts taken from other countries on Twitter.
All of that has meant this new wave of union activism has had, at best, an icy response from management. What maybe demonstrates that aggression more than anything else is the fact that every worker and organiser we spoke to for this piece asked for anonymity, fearing repercussions at work for speaking. Many even insisted Byline Times should not even name the museum or cultural group they work for. “It feels like you talk and talk and talk and they just don’t listen”, as one put it.
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Part of why the response has been so combative undoubtedly has something to do with just how unprecedented this wave of strike action is. It’s been decades since many of even the most active of these workplaces have been on strike, many more workplaces are striking for the first time. And they’re far from the only industry in a similar position in the last few months.
“If you look at a lot of the kind of current wave of industrial action, it’s quite universal. There’s a lot of different people involved in it,” Umney explains. “But one thing that’s also interesting about it is that groups which are historically not been particularly associated with trade unionism are very visibly on strike now – think of medical staff or academics too”.
The through line between all of these various groups is the fact they work in sectors reliant on their own staff’s altruism. Staff in the charitable, cultural or other public service sectors, have historically been expected to endure low pay or poor conditions as it would be wrong to focus excessively on your own struggles when the main focus should be those you help. But in the last few months that has started to shift. As one worker I spoke to put it: “The sector has been running on goodwill for a really long time. And finally that goodwill is running out”.
Those we spoke to felt those industries had the potential become a new face for exploitation and the union movement, in the same way industrial workers and certain public sector staff did in the 20th century. But the future was far from certain.
“But a lot of what happens next with this movement”, explains Umney, “will depend on what happens at a government level”.