England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Organising in the cultural sector

In 2019 members of the Prospect union at the Science Museum Group (SMG) went on strike. In a year where the director had received a bonus of £20,000, not only had workers received an effective pay cut which had accumulated over the past 10 years to be about 13% in real terms, there were some, particularly those working in front of house roles, who were still not earning a living wage.

Within a sector that has been dealing with ramifications of funding cuts for a decade, the string of strike action by SMG staff was hugely significant. The SMG, which includes the Science Museum in London, the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, Bradford’s Science and Media Museum as well as the National Railway Museum and Locomotion Museum, Blythe House and the National Collections Centre at Wroughton, already have a poor reputation amongst museum workers in the capital and beyond. It’s fairly well known that the not insignificant cohort of well trained, passionate science communicators are amongst the lowest paid in the sector. Seeing workers take a stand, however, was slightly less familiar. 

The issues that led to the strike weren’t new to the cultural sector, or at all unusual. In fact, staff at the Museum of London were also on strike over a similar dispute after the museum had imposed a below inflation pay rise of 1.5%. Similar to the SMG pay strike, this was very much a case of the last straw, given that the pay rise delivered to Museum of London workers would leave them with a 6% pay cut in real terms, (in spite of the director’s salary increasing by 4.7%). 


In order to understand the dangerous situation faced by many cultural sector workers, it’s important to understand some of the broader context. Long standing austerity measures and exploitative employment practice have led to significant disparities in pay and working conditions. Now on top of this, workers are also having to worry about the threat of redundancy as cultural institutions try to recover from the financial impact of lockdown.

Historically the cultural sector has often been victim to the harshest cuts under both Labour and Tory governments. In May 2019, it was reported that ‘Some 14% of local authority museums and 19% of independent former local authority institutions have reduced their opening hours in the past year, while 61% of local authority museums charge admission to cover their shortfall’, according to the Museums Association’s 2018 report

For each year of cuts, institutions have often forced their lowest paid staff to bear the brunt of austerity. This has not been gone unchallenged. Workers have been at the forefront of standing up for better treatment and for management to take them seriously. In 2012, cleaners at the British Museum went on strike to protest against the privatisation of their jobs (indeed, the institution’s intransigence on rehiring the workers who had been fired once the contractor dissolved was one of the issues which led to the later resignation of Ahdaf Soueif, one of the trustees). In 2015, National Gallery staff went on strike against the privatisation of services as did workers from the National Museums of Scotland. 2016 saw PCS unionised workers take on the National Museum of Wales directors who had begun their attack on pay by proposing to cut weekend premium payments. In addition, managers attempted to break the strike by using employees on zero hour contracts. NMS workers would also re-commence their strike action. June 2019 saw cleaners of the Royal Parks go on strike, fighting against pitiful wages the same year that Bradford Museum and Library workers went on strike protesting against cuts

Fall in spending

Overall however, English council spending on culture has fallen by almost £400m over the last eight years. According to the latest County Councils Network spending review, shire councils’ culture budgets have fallen by 33%. In response to this, for more than a decade cultural organisations have been encouraged to take an increasingly ‘entrepreneurial’ approach. This has meant developing business models which are often reliant on people coming through the doors and purchasing subsidiary goods from services like shops or cafes.

For all this commitment to demonstrating independence and financial savvy on the part of cultural organisations, time and time again we have seen that a pro-austerity government will never be impressed by the profits made in spite of some of the harshest cuts in Europe, a reality which one would assume cannot be lost on those of the directorate level. That it is, suggests either incompetence or callousness.

Another structural issue is that across the sector, a reliance on poorly paid or unpaid internships makes it difficult for young people or early practitioners to enter the sector (a recent report commissioned by the Sutton Trust showed around 90% of arts internships are unpaid). Grassroots organisations like Fair Museum Jobs still have to routinely call organisations to task for advertising roles that turn out to be below living wage (if they even show the wage at all), something which collectives like Museum as Muck and Museum Detox have raised as detrimentally impacting diversity and retainment within the sector.

In many ways, the situation within the SMG exemplified the intersection of all these issues. Examples included different pay grades across sites for the same roles (especially apparent after merging of sites across the UK) and externally advertised jobs where new employees would be paid more than those within the museums who would often be the ones training them. 

For a sector which aims to inspire and educate the next generation, it seems there’s a lack of forward thinking with respect to how it treats its workers.

These kinds of divisions are also reflected in union membership. In many institutions, one finds security and cleaning staff in different unions, whilst a significant proportion of those working in front of house or on zero hour contracts remain un-unionised. There is also the systemic problem of cross-union and cross-institutional solidarity. This was particularly noticeable observing the SMG pay strike. Prospect (of which around 45% of staff are members), PCS and FDA are all recognised unions by the SMG however, a significant number of staff the Science and Industry Museum are in Unison, which isn’t recognised by the SMG. During the SMG pay strike, whilst there was definite solidarity from PCS union as evidenced on social media, ultimately they didn’t ballot to go on strike which reduced representation of unionised staff.

Regardless, what this demonstrates is an already fragile situation that was basically kindling waiting for a spark. And then COVID happened. 

The arrival of COVID

From the earliest discussions of the first lockdown, there had been warnings about the potential impact of COVID lockdown not just on revenue but on the very ability of many institutions to re-open. Performing arts venues, from theatres to cultural centres were particularly at risk but this also applied to museums and galleries, many of whom are reliant on subsidiary income from visitor footfall to match the amount they get in national funding. 

In July 2020, Rishi Sunak promised £1.57 billion to help out the struggling sector although even at that time it was clear to many that this was not enough. Indeed, considering that the culture sector was estimated to have contributed £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy by 2019, the offer could be almost seen as insulting. Even when the funds were made available, a lack of transparency saw independent museums, smaller cultural organisations, collectives and practitioners miss out or apply with inadequate criteria. Numerous organisations including Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARACUK) have highlighted the difficulty of applying for any support funds and for many other cultural workers, the schemes available do not adequately support those who are self-employed, often due to technicalities such as not being available to those who have registered as limited companies in their own right, something they were often encouraged to do to be placed on institutional payrolls.

Thus we can see how the problem of national funding has been compounded by other structural issues. Even when re-opening after the initial lockdown, cultural institutions were laying off precarious staff. The Tate, for example, had planned for 313 redundancies despite the galleries expecting to receive a £7 million bailout. A strike was organised by PCS union members, amongst their demands being that 10% of the bailout would be used to save jobs (another demand was that there should be no redundancies considering ‘senior executives are paid in excess of £100,000 a year’). The AgiTate movement was a good example of how workers from different institutions can organise together, as later protests were held with Unite Southbank Centre and the BECTU National Theatre branch (who also represent the some 400 casual staff made redundant from the National Theatre). There was even support across borders from those such as the CGT Culture representatives in France.

Initially, Tate resorted to the usual strike busting tactics, taking advantage of the difficulties faced by many people working in service and support roles, now in financially precarious positions after months of a half-hearted lockdown. However, since then an agreement has been reached which includes more satisfactory redundancy settlements.

Attacks on staff

What this shows is that in spite of the fact that it’s service workers who are essentially generating the income institutions require to survive, they are the ones most vulnerable to redundancies. Given the known difficulties faced by employers, we have to look beyond simply getting decent redundancy settlements. Furthermore, for all the savvy shown in dealing with national funding cuts, those at directorate level in these institutions show less willingness to engage with workers to seek effective, equitable and sustainable solutions. This is concerning as we enter another lockdown after we have already seen a plethora of cultural trusts and museum groups go into consultation. The Birmingham Museums Trust entered consultation with over half of the staff at risk of losing their jobs. Meanwhile ‘Staff at York Museums Trust have been warned their jobs may be cut in order to survive losses of £1.5m incurred during its four-month closure’, up to 100 jobs could be cute from National Museums Liverpool as they intend to restructure for ‘financial sustainability’ and the V&A Museum in London is planning to make 10% of its workforce redundant

So what lessons can we learn?

The strike action taking place across the country has only been possible thanks to energised and motivated union organisation. Unfortunately as with many sectors, union membership is still quite low which can lead to a lack of confidence on part of union leadership. Whilst reasons for low membership are varied, the reality is many who can afford to join are not doing so. Can this be changed?

“A lot of people just don’t know why you’d join a Union”, commented one SMG Prospect union member, “but when the ballot went through, we saw a massive increase in Prospect membership”. In fact, membership went up by about 20% compared to what it had been 18 months prior. This rise since the strike demonstrates that proactive unions are important drives for membership and in turn for deeper engagement by members.

Whilst there have been notable changes in attitude by some members of senior management at the Science Museum, due to successive lockdowns and the impact of decreased visitor numbers and revenue, it’s still not entirely clear what lies in the future for those who were part of the SMG pay strike. This lack of clarity is concerning considering that museums are in full recovery mode and there is no certain end to the situation in sight.

It is interesting to note that in spite of increasingly polarised public opinion, at the time of the SMG Pay strike, the Museum of London workers strike and the Tate PCS union strike, a significant proportion of the public were on the side of cultural workers, especially when the reality of pay conditions were made apparent. Nonetheless, it is part of our work as socialists to raise awareness about the importance of the cultural sector to ensure this sympathy does not congeal as pity but transforms into solidarity. We must continually highlight that the arts have always been vital for formulating new ideas. British socialism and radical organising have a strong connection with the arts and literary culture; socialist and left-wing artists, curators, historians, writers and so on have been consistently creating and sharing new visions of what it means to be a human and what society could be.

Culture and the fight for socialism

But it’s also important to think about other means to practically support workers. Museum Detox’s Hardship Fund which was established to help practitioners who had lost significant income as a result of the first lockdown, has been one example of radical, practical activism. Much like the Mutual Aid collectives which sprung up in response to the COVID lockdown, this kind of direct action is sorely needed in light of reality that we are working with a weakened union movement, in struggle against a cabal of disaster capitalists and cynical right wing populists in a system where neo-liberal economic policy has been deeply entrenched for decades. We are at the stage where protests need to be supported with the development of collectively owned material support and solidarity networks . Linked to this, a socialist programme for the cultural sector needs to be developed – raising the idea of how the profit driven capitalist system holds back culture – and why a socialist and democratically planned economy run for need not profit, could protect and unleash the cultural potential of society. 

As we enter another lockdown, we know that there are difficult times ahead for this sector. With a hesitating opposition, a demonstrably incapable government and the full impact of a Tory Brexit still to be felt, one thing is clear that it is up to us to continually push for our rights as workers and to fight in solidarity with each other.

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