In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones laments that workers standing up for themselves is getting in the way of him looking at art. Here are five reasons why he’s talking out of his arse and you should support the strikers.
1. Workers don’t lose pay just for the hell of it
Could it possibly be that the real ideologue here is not Nicholas Penny, the retiring National Gallery director who writes books about Raphael, but Mark Serwotka, the avowedly politicised union leader who speaks alongside Corbyn?
In anti-union polemics, it’s standard practice to heap the blame on ‘union barons’ such as Serwotka for dragging members out on strike and holding the public hostage. But it’s not the truth – the workers themselves vote whether to strike, and they’re hardly going to support action if they see no reason too.
The difference with Jones’s article is that he actually takes a moment to link to another piece arguing why the staff should be supported. Presuming he’s actually read it, he should know that National Gallery workers are not only fighting privatisation, which brings with it the threat of worsening pay and conditions and reduced job security as well as taking something out of state ownership, but have also won the living wage in the course of their campaigning.
Looking deeper, he might also see that the Gallery have victimised a trade union rep. Candy Udwin was sacked for raising questions over privatisation, and a hearing has already ruled that a tribunal is likely to find that she was unfairly dismissed for carrying out her trade union duties. Reinstatement of Candy is also a vital part of this campaign.
To suggest that Serwotka somehow engineered all of this as a ‘cynical flexing of muscle,’ attributes to him Machiavellian influence he simply doesn’t possess. It also robs the workers themselves of their agency, and that’s the fundamental point – the rank-and-file PCS members at the Gallery have driven this fight. Not their General Secretary.
2. There is no justification for a race to the bottom
Is the National Gallery really the worst employer, the most extreme provocation, among all the public service contexts in which PCS members work? I can’t help suspecting it is much easier to pick a fight with this gentle temple of the arts than it would be with government departments and the civil services.
Again, the workers at the National Gallery are in charge of this dispute, so why they’d demand strikes at somewhere they don’t work is a mystery.
Then there’s the fact that there have been and are ongoing PCS disputes in the civil service. Take the strike over Universal Credit working conditions as just one recent example.
But, beyond all that, why should workers only fight their bosses if they’re the very worst off? How on earth does somebody else possibly being treated worse justify you being treated badly? This is the worst kind of spurious bollocks, and all it does is justify a race to the bottom. Instead of looking to the worse off and letting ourselves be pushed down to that level workers should be looking to the best off and demanding to be raised up alongside them.
3. Our power to disrupt is how we win
how is the union’s avowed desire to “defend the functions of a national institution”, in Serwotka’s words, served by closing many of its galleries to visitors for 52 days so far, with worse disruption to come? It’s nonsense to claim the staff are putting the art first if they stop people from seeing it. The visitors being affected are kids in the summer holidays, as well as visitors who come from all over Britain and the world – a lot of ordinary people being denied the chance to see great art.
This should be obvious.
Bosses don’t listen to workers because they’re reasonable people if only we make the right arguments. They don’t attack our conditions having carefully weighed up all the options and decided that their course is the best one for the common interest of employer and worker alike. They do it because they can, and because they profit from it.
Our answer to that is our collective power to make that attack more costly and more disruptive than any other option. Strikes aren’t a protest or a statement, they’re direct action – a barrier in the way of the employer getting their own way at our expense. And they work.
4. There’s a bigger picture
I’ve never voted anything but Labour in my life. Can’t you at least let me alone when I’m looking at Titian? I have to be a socialist in the museum now? Is it blacklegging to look at Leonardo?
We’ll leave aside the ridiculous notion that there’s a link between voting Labour and being a socialist. Or that you can claim to really hold principles if you can shrug them off like a coat. (“Well, yes, normally I’d try and stop a mugger from attacking you. But can’t you see I’m in the middle of a good book? Come on, now!”)
What matters here is that this dispute isn’t about whether you’re able to visit the museum at one specific time. Is it more disruptive to not be able to visit a museum during strike action to prevent privatisation, or to have all future visits affected by the owners putting profit first rather than culture? Is it worse if rooms are closed down for a short period during the struggle or if certain rooms are shut forever because business needs dictate it?
For an opponent of “crass philistinism,” Jones sure is fond of putting his immediate, individual wants over a longer term benefit for everyone.
5. A win for one is a win for all
I don’t think this is just a struggle for rights. I think it is a chance for Serwotka’s union to throw its weight about. I didn’t think that before the election, but I seriously suspect it now that anti-austerity ideologues in the trade union movement are about to put the Labour party out of power for much of my lifetime and all of my daughter’s youth.
Whether or not the Labour Party is out of power is of no bearing here, and was most likely thrown in because Jones wasn’t sure whether to write a piece decrying this strike or decrying Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership bid and decided to do half of each. But the point about unions throwing their weight around is telling.
Unions should throw their weight around. Workers ought to challenge the bosses where they can and stand up for their collective interests. If the bosses can get away with attacks, rolling back terms and conditions, reducing pay, privatisation, or victimising union reps in one place then they feel emboldened to do it everywhere.
But if the workers can win, driving up pay and conditions and resisting attacks, then it is our class who feel emboldened to advance. We put the bosses on the back foot, and a race to the bottom shifts to a race to the top.
If that means some poor sap like Jonathan Jones can’t look at Titian for a short while, and has to think about politics beyond just his passive act of democratic participation every five years, then so be it. The only one to shed any tears over that will be him.
Donate to the National Gallery strike fund here.