rs21 members Tom Schofield and Becky Brown report from an important strike in central London.
On Monday expectant visitors to the British Museum (BM), Britain’s third most visited museum, queued well past the 10am official opening time. Managers scrabbled to determine how safe it would be to open the building. Only 12 days earlier, the same line had led nowhere, as essential front-of-house staff joined fellow PCS members from across the public sector in a day of national strike action. Without these staff, the museum’s imposing iron gates fall completely shut.
More than 130 security and visitor services staff at the BM are on strike from Monday 13 until Sunday 19 February, for higher pay and improvements to working conditions. Their union PCS says wage freezes and funding cuts have contributed to declining employment standards over the past decade. The strikes come now as a response to the museum’s paltry 4 percent pay offer, while workers and their supporters on the picket lines demand ‘more pay… now!’
Workers recount a relentless decline in real pay and conditions. One described how the pandemic has accelerated this, bringing in a whirlwind of staff turnover and the degradation of previously upheld standards. For example, security staff’s seating area for use in breaks was permanently removed by a new management team.
It seems some of the striking staff feel belittled by their white-collar counterparts and believe that believe a culture of antagonism is causing job anxiety, which makes some too scared to stand up for their rights. One way of surmounting this would be for more white-collar workers to join the picket lines in support and solidarity. Attending the picket lines would also go some way to addressing structural racism, since many of the security staff currently striking are migrants and/or people of colour.
It’s worth highlighting how the BM’s poor treatment of their workers, particularly front of house, ultimately undermines the security of the museum itself, be that of the visitors or the amassed artefacts. A member of staff we spoke with explained that team morale has dropped significantly over the period he’s been working there, which can lead to mistakes on the job. He told us of a ‘penetration test’ carried out recently, in which a man spent the night sleeping in an exhibition space unnoticed by the security team. The Museum’s poor treatment of workers is a threat to its own security, which is ironic considering that arguments currently circulating against returning objects to their places of origin rest on the claim that only the British Museum has been sufficiently able to care for these priceless artefacts.
Pickets so far have been well attended by staff and outside supporters, say 30 or more people at any given time. Journalists and news cameras have been buzzing round, partially attracted by the uptick in wider industrial action reportage and partially because the museum is a widely recognised public face of Britain’s establishment culture. The mass movement of workers engaged in strikes across a whole range of sectors (though as one disappointed museum visitor bitterly pointed out, mostly limited to public sector workers) is a powerful motivator here.
PCS’s ability to pay strike pay is probably also contributing to this sense of hope on the picket line. Yet it should be said that many affected staff are employed by outsourced staffing agencies. Strikers say that these colleagues are being offered bonus pay to work on strike days, and would not be eligible for strike pay if they turned down a shift offer.
Relatedly, in July last year, the Tories introduced a new law to make it easier for businesses to employ temporary staff during strikes. This law, along with a host of others, is explicitly written to limit the effectiveness of strikes. To overturn this will require unity and creative thinking both inside and outside of work.