In London's National Gallery – home to some of the world's finest artworks – it feels like a normal day. Bored kids, culture vultures and art buffs shuffle around sizing up the paintings. Tourists take pictures with their smartphones. And Charles I sits smugly on his horse, kidding the world that he wasn't 5' 4".
Nothing suggests that one of the country's great cultural institutions – founded in 1824 – is going through a crisis. But sitting down at the entrance of each room, guiding the visitors and explaining the art, the staff of the National Gallery are holding back fear.
In July last year, a decision was made to outsource 400 out of 600 gallery staff. From the room wardens to the front-desk and school booking staff, almost everyone will be transferred from the public sector to a private company.
The National Gallery has offered a number of justifications for the plan. At first they spoke about government funding cuts and efficiency. Then they spoke about the need for flexibility. Like other cultural spaces, the National Gallery is being forced to diversify their revenue with evening events and commercial collaborations. They say that requires a more flexible labour force, and they say it can only be delivered through an external agency.
Whatever the precise reason, the outcome of outsourcing labour is almost always the same. Hard-earned public sector benefits will go, wages will become uncertain and shift patterns irregular. The staff of the National Gallery will become pawns in the UK public sector's outsourcing bonanza, a central component of the government's ideological agenda.
There was a time last year when it looked like it might not happen. After an online petition gathered over 35,000 signatures, the gallery agreed to temporarily suspend its proposal and open talks with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). But in August, gallery management walked away from meetings, pressed ahead with its plans and threatened to sue anyone that took part in strike action.
The results of a ballot for a five-day strike will be revealed later today, but a grim inevitability lingers in the giant rooms. Almost as soon as I walked through the front door on Wednesday, into the Sunley room, I could sense the fear. Two wardens stood by the entrance were nervously discussing an article the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee had written the day before. "We shouldn't be talking about it," one of them said before the hushed conversation came to a close.
Written into the contracts of the National Gallery workers are confidentiality agreements that ban staff from talking directly to the press about their grievances. As I moved from room to room, few wardens seemed comfortable talking beyond telling me how nervous they were.
One gallery assistant, who referred to himself only as "N", did agree to speak later that evening on the condition of anonymity. N has worked at the National Gallery as a room warden for the past 14 years and remembers his time fondly. Being so close to such great works of art and working at such a prestigious institution has been a remarkable experience, he told me. But now his future is uncertain.
"I'm certainly thinking about leaving," he said. "It's sad, I love going there and working with the people I work with. I've known them for the past 14 years but I have to keep my options open."
The National gallery claims that its staff will not be made worse off by the transfer. They say workers will be protected under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations ( TUPE), which guarantee outsourced workers move over on exactly the same terms. But TUPE regulations only apply for a limited amount of time, after which they can be changed according to different technical, operational and economic reasons.
"We're going towards a situation where we'll be low paid, called in when they want, and will lose our rights to a civil service sick pay," N said. "Without the London Living wage, people already find it difficult and now they are asking how they will cope. If you work different hours of the day every week and can be called in with 24 hours notice you might not be able to continue."
It's not just personal terms that will be affected, either. At the heart of the dispute is a conviction that an external agency working to maximise profits cannot provide the same quality and commitment to art as an in-house team.
Like N, many of the current staff at the gallery have worked for years and are trained to protect and care for the paintings. Many are deeply knowledgeable about the institution and its collections. When I asked one warden to translate some Latin above a door he spent the next two minutes enthusiastically discussing various facts about the room.
"If you look at the agency run staff they are just brought in to fill a room," N said. "They don't tend to stay a long time and they don't usually have knowledge of the building or the paintings. The ethos of the place is bound to change."
Pointing out that an external agency may not be suitable to run the gallery is a dangerous thing to do for the building's staff. In July, the workers were informed that CIS – a private security firm more used to securing empty buildings than guarding a Rubens painting – would be brought in to manage the forthcoming Rembrandt exhibition to quell fears about possible strike action. After researching CIS online, Jim Rutherford, then team leader of the National Gallery's security team became extremely concerned.
"I was worried that such important artworks were going to be guarded by people with no experience," he told me. "I wrote anonymous letters to all the lenders of the Rembrandt exhibition pointing out my concerns. On August 12th I was called into a meeting with Senior Managers and HR and charged with gross misconduct. My office keys, radio and staff pass were removed and I was escorted out of the building. I was so angry at my treatment that I submitted my resignation on the same day."
On Monday, the Rembrandt exhibition finished but CIS staff have been asked to remain at the gallery – taking over a third of the services without a tender. Nobody I spoke to seemed to fully understand why this is happening. None of the current in-house staff have been fired, and those that did work in the Sainsbury Wing galleries have been squeezed into a much smaller area.
"It's a threatening tactic," Clara Paillard, president of the culture sector at the major trade union PCS suggested. "At a time where we are fighting privatisation, demanding consultation and negotiation with management they've already brought in a private firm."
Back at the gallery, I walked down to the Sainsbury Wing to see if I could find out what working for CIS was like. The first thing you notice when you walk in is that the staff aren't allowed to sit down when the rooms are busy. In a gallery that's almost always packed, that means standing in more or less the same position for hours on end. I saw one assistant bent over with hands on her knees.
I approached her and quietly asked whether she enjoyed working for CIS. "I've got nothing to say, I like working here," she replied curtly. "I think it's a great company," another member of staff said after I struck up a conversation about the paintings. I was trying to be subtle but, not long after speaking, two members of senior management were called over to ask what I was doing. They weren't unfriendly, but their wariness spoke volumes.
During the Rembrandt exhibition, some CIS staff were found touching the paintings. Others were caught trying to physically eject a lady they thought had been there too long. This isn't the fault of the staff, but vindication, according to those I spoke to, that an external agency cannot understand how art should be approached.
In February, a five-day strike has been called in hope that a solution can be found that avoids privatisation and remunerates staff for any new work they are asked to do. If that doesn't work – and it's looking less and less probable – the National Gallery is unlikely to stay the same. Charles I may still be sitting on his horse, but something else quite fundamental will be lost.
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