Monday, October 29, 2012

Battles in the Museums

STAYING on the road despite dangerous obstructions.  LT Museum, Covent Garden. Entrance fee increased, yet management wants to axe jobs and cut pay of lowest paid by around 20 per cent. Projects for schools are being shelved.

MUSEUMS, other than those dedicated to trade union and working class history, might have been thought to provide a quiet refuge from the class struggle, but in today's Britain of attacks on people's living standards, rights and culture, they too are becoming battlegrounds for the resistance.

Cleaners and maintenance staff at the British Museum are on strike this morning to oppose outsourcing which they fear could seriously undermine their pay and conditions. The PCS and Unite unions believe senior managers are already close to confirming contracts which would start from April. The fifty or so workers the unions represent, already low-paid, voted overwhelmingly for strike action.

Meanwhile at the popular London Transport museum in Covent Garden, the Transport Salaried Staff Association(TSSA) which organises staff has raised the alarm about the effect of cuts on members' jobs and the future of the museum.  

The transport museum owes its origins to a decision by the London General Omnibus Company back in 1920 to preserve two Victorian horse buses and a motor bus for posterity. Nowadays the museum has something for everybody, from engines and rolling stock to famous London Underground posters. In 2011 the Museum attracted almost 300,000 visitors, an increase of over 40% in four years. This year over 120,000 schoolchildren were expected to benefit from the Museum’s outreach programme.
The entrance fee has recently risen to £13.50 for an adult ticket.

But Transport for London has cut its grant to the museum by 25 per cent, a total of £3.5 million over four years. the TSSA says Arts Council funding has also dried up, resulting in a number of educational projects and posts being shelved.

In a letter to the Guardian earlier this year, TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes was joined by TV "Time Team" presenter Tony Robinson and transport expert Christian Wolmar in warning that "Swingeing cuts...have left the museum starved of crucial income", causing outreach work to be shelved, and that recent and possible future increases in the entrance fee were "jeopardising access for poorer Londoners."

 They noted that seven valued posts had been abolished and now staff feared for jobs. In a more recent leaflet from TSSA the union says museum management is now proposing to cut permanent staff by 30 per cent and cut the salaries of the lowest paid staff by around 20 per cent.

The British Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 and as anyone passing through nearby streets can testify is one of the country's most popular tourist attractions, with six million visitors a year, as well as a centre for scholarship.  Today's strike lasted just a few hours, but unions are planning further action next Monday to coincide with a gathering of the museum's members, expected to attract 3,000 guests.

While the TV news and government are crowing that Britain is "out of recession" it does not feel that way to those in work, let alone out of it. The Office for National Statistics has reported that people’s living standards fell sharply since 2008. Meanwhile food and energy costs are rising well above the rate of inflation and train companies recently announced another steep increase in fares.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka says: “With the cost of living soaring the last thing these low-paid workers need is a private company taking over and cutting their wages and working conditions to boost profits and line shareholders’ pockets.

“Cleaners and other museum staff work incredibly hard to maintain this prestigious and popular cultural attraction and we know this is appreciated by the millions of visitors the museum attracts every year. Introducing the profit motive is not only unnecessary, it risks undermining these important services to the public.”

Unite regional officer Carolyn Simpson said: “Unite will not stand idly by whilst our members and this vital museum service is sold-off to an external provider. Without our members carrying out the cleaning and servicing of the buildings and exhibits, the British Museum’s standing as a world class heritage site is in danger of becoming second class. We will not allow these jobs be outsourced without a fight.”

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