Tate Awakening

Lizzie Homersham on protests at Tate Modern

A sign used by a demonstrator at the Tate Modern on July 27. Photo: Lizzie Homersham.

“SHAME ON TATE.” This chant reverberated at a protest organized by dozens of staffers with PCS Tate United and PCS Culture Group on Monday, ensuring that no visitor to London’s Tate Modern—newly reopened after four months due to the pandemic—could think it accepted or normal for the institution to threaten 334 employees of its commercial arm, Tate Enterprises, with redundancy. The decimation of jobs is completely preventable, workers argue, and political. Ultimately, Tate’s board decides on resource allocations, and the Prime Minister appoints thirteen out of fourteen members. Monday’s protest signs read “Abuse of Bailout Comes as No Surprise,” “Coronavirus No Excuse to Fire Us,” and “Your Museum Is a Battleground.” Tate’s own sign—a big “THANK YOU KEY WORKERS” message added to the museum’s lightbox in May—was still highly visible, facing out to the River Thames, but I saw nothing outside about additional cautionary measures to curtail the spread of Covid-19 (Tate outsources its cleaning and security staff to partner companies who do not recognize the union, and who afford only statutory sick pay).

“If they’re not safe, it can’t be safe to open,” said a twenty-two-year-old woman queueing with a Tate member at 9:30 AM to enter the Andy Warhol retrospective. “We feel betrayed,” one of the demonstrators told me, pointing out that “those of us taking the brunt of the cuts are the most diverse, the working class, women, people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.” They continued: “We feel money should be invested by Tate as a public body with public funds; why move us from one public body to another, as in Universal Credit? We should be able to move back into our jobs.” According to a gallery staff member out in solidarity with her colleagues, there’s “a lot of fight in the institution, a lot of digging up of old wounds. I’m particularly thinking about Anthony d’Offay and people who’ve just left in a state of giving up. There aren’t good enough systems in place for people who’ve suffered abuse. Tate is setting up a ‘Race Equality Taskforce’ which is well intentioned but hugely flawed. They’re not entertaining senior staff level cuts at all. They’re just saying they need to be commercially competitive.”

Tate Enterprises is set up as a subsidiary business wholly owned by Tate’s board to generate profits through publishing, retail, and catering to supplement the institution’s overall funding as an executive nondepartmental public body and exempt charity. In early July, as part of an overall £1.57 billion ($2 billion) package of repayable loans and grants offered by the UK government to the cultural sector as a whole, a £7 million ($9 million) grant was allocated to Tate to cover its four galleries across Liverpool, Cornwall, and London, where over two-thirds of redundancies are projected. Central to the dispute now being waged between the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS, the United Kingdom’s sixth-largest trade union) and Tate management is the union’s call that a modest 10 percent of Tate’s government bailout be used to save jobs. The three core union demands are firstly, “If bailout money is available it must save jobs.” Secondly, “If the money isn’t enough, then institutions must demand more funding.” A third demand of the union is for “no redundancies while senior staff continue to be paid annual salaries of over £100,000.”

Fearing retaliation from Tate, the protesters who spoke to me on Monday requested anonymity. London-based Tate Commerce workers are now being legally balloted for strike action, with this ballot closing on August 3. A consultative ballot carried out by PCS two weeks ago saw 99 percent of union members respond, of whom 93 percent voted to take action. As a work stoppage is expected to start within fourteen days—intended to coincide with the end of Tate’s furlough scheme designed for job retention—and museum management have already sent at least one intimidating and inaccurate email discouraging participation in a strike. On Wednesday morning, a message addressed by Lisa Mack, people director of Tate Commerce & Tate Eats, requested that staff return from furlough to their normal working hours from August 10 through August 23 to help Tate “assess the impact” of a strike. Such a request is bound to confuse employees who still don’t know whether they still have a job, such as one retail worker I interviewed who expected her furlough to last until the end of next month. The email further encouraged anyone who wished to “volunteer” during a maximum six-month strike to contact the People Team about working in shops at Tate Modern and Tate Britain or picking up orders at the distribution center. Mack’s original email cautioned workers that only those 110 staff members who had taken part in the ballot for strike action would be entitled to strike. This is incorrect, and within two hours, employees received an update and apology clarifying that all workers would in fact be entitled to participate in a lawful strike action. Indeed, staff may take part in a walkout whether or not they are trade union members: During official strikes, nonmembers have the same rights as union members not to be dismissed as a result of participation.

The “Tate” of the protestors’ chants can be substituted with other names. The pandemic and its economic fallout have triggered existential crises at museums around the world, institutions now forced to plainly reveal priorities skewed toward capital and whiteness. The coming weeks will tell whether those priorities can be changed by organized workers, and to what extent, but until then, one thing seems clear: The Tories are shameless, and at the top of Tate’s structure of power.

Lizzie Homersham is a writer and editor based in London.