The Fight against Privatisation and for
the Right to Speak Out and Organise
On Saturday May 30, Trafalgar Square was filled with thousands of people who came to support the workers at the National Gallery in their fight to stop the privatisation of this major symbol of Britain’s cultural heritage. They also came to protest at the sacking of Candy Udwin, a National Gallery worker and senior PCS representative, who was part of the union’s negotiating team at talks at the conciliation service ACAS. She was accused of “breaching commercial confidentiality” and suspended by the National Gallery management in February before the first of the strikes and then sacked last month.
The demonstration was organised and led by the National Gallery workers’ union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and was the culmination of waves of strikes by the workforce since February. PCS members have been on strike for more than 30 days against the Gallery’s decision to privatise up to 400 of its 600 staff including those who look after security of the paintings, look after 6 million visitors a year and handle requests for information about the collection, complaints and school bookings. This would mean that the commitment, knowledge and dedication of the workforce would be replaced by private agency staff. On the day of the demo they started their 31st day of action and would be on strike until June 4.
Speaker after speaker called on the National Gallery management to stop their privatisation plans and re-instate Candy Udwin.
PCS president Janice Godrich hailed the “brilliant turnout” and said: “We’re here to send a clear message to that building over there that we are not going to allow victimisation or privatisation. And we’re also here to tell that lot sitting down there in Downing Street that over the next five years they are going to meet constant obstruction and protest.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said to the crowd: “We are so proud of the strikers. We will not give way to the speculators and spivs who want to see the privatisation of everything.” He went on to praise the “incredible commitment” of the strikers and the courage of Candy Udwin: “People in that building should hang their heads in shame,” he said. “Victory to the National Gallery strikers.”
Labour MP John McDonnell and trade unionists including Christine Blower from the NUT and Steve Turner from Unite spoke in support of the strikers and activists all demanding the end of privatisation and victimisation.
Film director Ken Loach was among a number of celebrity supporters representing the arts, including artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who condemned the National Gallery management. He said that they were “mean spirited, narrow minded and short-sighted” and, along with other speakers, pointed out that included amongst the trustees of the National Gallery were “bankers, investment managers, hedge fund managers”. To loud cheers for the assembled strikers, he said: “These people here represent the very best of the struggles of the trade unions. Victory to the strikers.”
Charlotte Monro, a health worker for the Barts NHS Trust, sacked for speaking out against the cuts in health care, said, in a personal capacity, that she brought “the support of thousands of health workers in the fight against diktat and corporate interests”. She told the crowd to great applause that she had won her fight and had been re-instated, pointing out that her victory had been made possible through the massive support she had received. She said, “It is not OK to attack trade union reps for speaking out in the public interest.” She pointed out the great effect her winning had had and said that “your victory will have the same impact”.
Candy Udwin to great applause said: “We’re not going to let them privatise the gallery and turn it into a playground for the rich. We’re not going to let them bully or silence us. This government is giving the green light to employers like the National Gallery. This government is coming for us and they are going to attack freedom of speech and our trade union rights and our human rights. But it simply shows they are scared of us.” She ended by calling for more strikes, protests and solidarity in the fight against austerity and privatisation. She said, “The support we’ve had has kept us going. Together we can win and turn the tide.”
Mark Serwotka ended the rally by explaining that the strikers lined up in front of the stage were all wearing gags to symbolise that they have been banned from talking to the press. To huge cheers for the strikers he said that the fight against privatisation would go on, and that when it was won everyone would come together again to celebrate: “When we work together, we are stronger. We are going to fight privatisation and reinstate Candy.”
Many speakers at the rally pointed out that the National Gallery is part of our cultural heritage and belongs to the people, not to the gang of money grabbing spivs who run it. The struggle of the National Gallery tellingly symbolises the bankrupt philistinism of our ruling class who have no regard for ordinary people or our rich cultural heritage but only rampant greed. The management of the National Gallery are in fact directly appointed by the Prime Minister. The struggle of the National Gallery workers is a vivid example of the struggle against austerity imposed by this extremist dictatorial government which does not recognise the right of human beings and their collectives and is opposed to the right of people to be the decision makers.