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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Culture and Class Struggle

by New Worker correspondent

Liverpool has often been at the sharp end of the class struggle. In 1911 it was the scene of violent general strike involving the city’s transport workers. In 1919 it had a police strike that was so effective the police were banned from striking. In the 1990s it was the scene of the last major dock strike in Britain. Today it is the city’s museum workers who are at the forefront of the city’s class struggle.

The National Museums Liverpool (NML) is perhaps unique for being a body nationalised by Margaret Thatcher when she rescued the near bankrupt city’s cultural institutions.

So far eight weeks of strike action have taken place causing closures at the Museum of Liverpool, the World Museum, the International Slavery Museum and the Maritime Museum, the Walker Art Gallery, Sudley House and the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

The dispute is over the fact that of the 200 government departments, agencies and nondepartmental public bodies the NML is one of the few which is refusing to pay 300 workers a £1,500 cost-of-living payment which workers at many other similar bodies have received.

Fifty-six days of action has already taken place since midFebruary, including five days this month already and will continue for another two days, nine in June and two in July, mostly over weekends, if matters are not resolved. A new temporary exhibition, National Treasures: Velazquez in Liverpool at the Walker Art Gallery is the latest to be affected.

The union involved, PCS is publicly optimistic that NML will concede, but they said that a month ago. 94 per cent of members voted for strike action on a 69 per cent turnout.

PCS general secretary, Fran Heathcote, said: “Our hard-working members at National Museums Liverpool love their jobs but are angry and feel undervalued because NML is the only one of more than 200 employers covered by the civil service pay remit guidance to withhold the £1,500 cost-of-living bonus.” She also warned that “this dispute can be easily resolved if the employer agrees to pay our members what they are owed. If the employer fails to do that, our members will go back on strike over the next three months”. PCS members at NML have voted to reject a “final offer” of a £750 one-off non-consolidated payment, which was dependant on ending the strike before Easter. A meagre sweetener of an increase in annual leave to 30 days (from 28), closing on Christmas Eve and even free tea, coffee and milk in staff rooms was rejected.

NML claim that as it is not part of the civil service, which is technically true, but it is a well-known fact that many other similar bodies are on the same civil service pay scales.

The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and seven Welsh national museums have also taken strike action on this very issue. NML say average wages have increased by 14 per cent since 2019/20 at a cost of an additional £2.4m a year. It claims meeting the £1,500 demand would cost £750,000 overall and put the museum below its minimum reserve level. NML has lost £6 million in Grant Aid funding since 2010.

However, Matt Exley, a PCS branch rep at NML said: “We’re civil servants when it suits them, and we’re not civil servants when it suits them. The ball’s always in their court.”

PCS points out that some NML workers live below the poverty line. Security guards are the worse affected, but other workers have their grumbles. And local Labour MP Kim Johnson says: “I want to see the issue resolved as soon as possible because it’s impacting not only the workers and the museums but our city.”

Not Just Liverpool

This dispute only highlights the general picture of live in the heritage sector. At last year’s TUC Congress, coincidently at Liverpool, the matter featured in a fringe meeting organised by the high caste civil servants Prospect union, entitled World Class Heritage, Second Class Pay. This pointed out that Liverpool was not the only museum suffering hardship. Indeed things are much worse in municipally funded institutions where some are facing not just cuts to opening times, but sales of objects to keep afloat. We shall leave for the time being the recent case of a British Museum doing some private de-accessioning.

Even popular national museums such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington which pull in the tourists suffered a £10 million cut in its grant last year.

At the TUC delegates unanimously passed a Prospect motion which deplored “brutal funding cuts have led to closures and cutbacks” and called for an end to the “regime of second class pay”, but we should not hold our breath waiting for action.

At Prospect’s fringe meeting Negotiations Officer Jo Livesey pointed out that 42 per cent of heritage workers earn less than the real living wage. John Wilson, a Prospect representative at NML, pointed out that PhDs in the sector generally earned much less than those with equivalent qualifications elsewhere. A National Trust wildlife conservationist reported that despite 15 years in the sector and holding a Masters degree, his pay only exceeded £20,000 in 2022.

Labour’s Shadow Employment Minister, Alison McGovern, the MP for nearby Wirral South pointed out that the heritage sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the economy. She might have added, but didn’t, that is because everything else is turning to dust. She also claimed that Labour’s promised “New Deal” would greatly improve things, but that has been watered down already.

The same union has 10,000 members (out of a total of 158,000) in such bodies as the British Museum, the Royal Academy; National Galleries of Scotland; Royal Botanic Gardens and the Science Museum, and privatised archaeological trusts. It has recently launched a new Heritage Sector of Prospect to represent them.

Museums and libraries are often seen as an easy target for cuts by hard pressed local authorities. In October Glasgow two major museums saw staff taking strike action in opposition to job cuts planned by the city’s arms’ length organisation, City Life. It wants to save £7.1 million with £1.5 million of that coming from 38 job cuts. At the same time the city’s central library wanted to reduce its conservation section to a single person.

Unison said cutting the number of conservators could cause a “high-profile accident” and valuable collection pieces could be damaged. In particular: “Deep cleaning of display venues by specialist Conservation staff will greatly reduce or completely disappear. World-class textiles at the Burrell Collection, taxidermy specimens at Kelvingrove and other vulnerable organic objects will be at particular risk of pest damage without regular, vigilant cleaning by highly-trained specialists.”

To return to the Land of Song the new Welsh First Minister, Vaughan Gething, recently openly said the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, could be shut saying its deteriorating condition was a result of prioritising the NHS and Transport. While he had to issue a hasty correction the Museum is already planning to cut 90 jobs.

Public Library Battles

In the local government supported public library world industrial action has been taking place up and down the country.

One of these was at the two south London boroughs of Bromley and Greenwich where the two library services are run by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL). The GLL was founded in 1993. It runs more than 250 sport and leisure facilities and 115 libraries on behalf of local authorities in London and elsewhere.

The GLL is a “social enterprise” which claims to be charitable but its charitable activities largely revolve around supplying large salaries to senior managers rather than to its 10,800 largely low paid employees. These lavish salaries are often the reason such organisations are set up in the first place – so that councillors can get large salaries rather than make do with local authority expenses for sitting on their boards.

GLL calls itself a “staff-led organisation”. In theory it elects staff to a representative board called a ‘society’, which is a normal company’s Board. But the majority of the workers are on zero-hour contracts and not classed as “staff” which means they are excluded. GLL does not recognise trade unions or negotiate on pay.

In late March staff belonging to Unite in the two boroughs walked out for a day complaining of low pay and poor working practices which include extensive use of zero hour contracts and poor sick pay schemes. These low wages, which are below local authority norms are the reason why many councils like to outsource their services.

The strike brought some success as a 20 per cent increase in sick pay was secured for all employees across the UK.

Unite general secretary, Sharon Graham, said “while this is a welcome step in the right direction, Unite won’t stop here. Our members deserve better pay and conditions and GLL is in a position to improve its offers across the board”. Mary Summers, a regional officer added that: “this win has been achieved through industrial action only, but we aren’t done yet. We must secure all the improvements that our members deserve, and are confident that together we will attain just that.”

Elsewhere public libraries are often the first to face cuts by hard pressed councillors. The County Councils Network (CCN) notes that since 2010-11 when English councils budgeted nearly £1.6 billion on library services, culture, heritage, and tourism the 2023-24 figure is £472 million less at £1.1 billion, an absolute decline aggravated by higher inflation.

The same report notes that demand for care services are increasing and that for 2024- 25 many local authorities are planning further reductions to the tune of £650 million in arts support and funding for libraries to give an extra £500 million for care services.

While it is a common assumption that in this internet age public libraries are something of a luxury from an educational point of view and that there are more urgent priorities than supplying copies of the latest Mills & Boon they do still perform vital functions. Not everyone can afford internet access at home. Libraries can provide internet facilities which are sometimes the best way of obtaining cheap rail travel. They provide literacy lessons to toddlers and offer free or cheap space to all sorts of local societies and groups. But while councils have a legal obligation to provide an “adequate library service”, the concept is not defined.

Councillor Sam Corcoran, Vice Chair of the CCN, deplored the fact that “councils have found it extremely hard to avoid significantly reducing their spend on libraries, culture, and tourism since 2010 with funding being prioritised towards life-critical care services. We know how much residents value cultural services, but the reality is that we have been unable to avoid reducing support for them”. He did not say what should be done.

Nevertheless budget cuts are coming in places such as Denbighshire, Nottingham and Swindon. The Local Government Association has warned that about a fifth of councils are tottering on the brink of bankruptcy. Denbighshire council is saving £360,000 a year by cutting hours by 40 per cent despite 90 per cent of the 4,500 responses to the consultation opposing. Swindon it was not closing any of its five core libraries but will make £600,000 unspecified cuts. Nottingham city council, is losing 31 library jobs to save £1.5 million. In bankrupt Birmingham at least 26 of its local libraries are at risk of closure.

In South Gloucestershire local government union Unison is opposing planned cuts of £473,000 which it says will prevent the council meeting its legal duty to provide an adequate library service. Here 3,900 people responded to the official consultation, mostly opposing the plans, but recently 12 branch libraries had their hours cut by 40 hours a week each to save £273,000.

North of the Border the past 15 years has seen the number of public libraries fall from 627 to less than 500 as the SNP government crush the life out of local government with their long standing council tax freeze which is aggravated by their cutting local government funding by more than a fifth in the past decade.