After 111 days of strike the more than 200 strikers of the National Gallery of London under the aegis of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union declared (partial) victory last October. The strike started as plans of the outgoing director – upheld by the trustees of UK’s National Gallery – decided to outsource the jobs of the ‘front-line’ staff, i.e. people in tickets, Gallery rooms, shops and so on, to a security company.
The plans were based on the premise that the security company could pay its staff much less than the Gallery in order to not only do things cheaper but also make a profit. Despite the declared industrial motion victory, the plans for outsourcing will go ahead.
Indeed, the Gallery was prepared for the industrial action and had already signed a contract with a security firm to man several of the rooms of the Gallery. They also had their ear to the ground and were improving on the PCS strikers complaints in the street: some of the replacement staff were getting progressively more educated on what they were guarding, and they were being increasingly more helpful towards the visitors.
The main premise of the PCS strikers was against the privatization of such a core function of the national Gallery, arguing that it had been a public institution for such a long time and that now was not the time to lose this public identity. Although this argument may not have been the most important one, it was possibly employed in order to sensitize the general public. And indeed, the public was sensitized. Mass support for the industrial action, demonstrations, and donations in support did come in.
The Gallery on the other hand, argued that since the government would be drastically phasing its funding out, the Gallery has to be able to make cuts across the board without changing the quality of services to its clients. And services to clients are already visibly deteriorating: information in each room was drastically poorer, computers with very rich content had disappeared, and this content was replaced by low-priced guided tours.
The disappearance of free content, however, seriously alters the free access status of the Gallery, whilst the recent successful move to outsource the front-line staff will make a mid-term perceptible difference in the services rendered to visitors, even if initially current front-line staff are employed with good terms by the security company.
Ultimately however, this whole issue highlights one enormous weakness of the National Gallery as an institution. Through this action, the Gallery concedes it is not efficient enough in managing the human resources that make it possible to display its art collection to the public, this being the Gallery’s raison d’être.
In other words, the top brass accepts that they are not able to run the Gallery by themselves. And this is a very grave acknowledgement.
Human resource management is one of the most important skills for the Gallery managers to have, yet it seems that the Gallery top brass prefers to outsource this key component to someone else than leave it to themselves. However, if the Gallery saves any money through this move, it could have saved even more by using the employment terms and efficiency of the company they are outsourcing things to.
Dr. Evangelos Kyriakidis is director of the Initiative for Heritage Conservation. The Initiative for Heritage Conservation promotes good practice in heritage management through education and research.