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Art In Dispute

Taj Ali

Faced with financial hardship and anti-union hostility from management, workers at the Royal Society of Arts are taking strike action for the first time in their 270-year history.

In 1754, eleven men came together in a Covent Garden coffeehouse, agreeing to pool their money to spend on initiatives for the public good. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) was born. From education to environmentalism, the society has championed many important causes. It fought to outlaw the practice of children sweeping chimneys, and its fellows have included Karl Marx, Marie Curie and Nelson Mandela.  

There is much to celebrate about an organisation with roots in direct democracy and social improvement. But it is also an organisation riven by contradictions. It once advertised prizes to encourage industries in Britain’s colonies, many underpinned by slavery. Its first vice-president, the 2nd Baron Romney, was a slave owner. Later, its vice-presidents included abolitionist William Wilberforce.  

Perhaps the most significant contradiction in recent years has been the treatment of its staff. ‘Practice what you preach’ reads a big cardboard banner on the picket line. For the first time in its 270-year history, workers at the organisation are on strike — and they’re angry.  

Taking a Stand

‘I joined RSA with the belief and hope that I was joining a progressive organisation that was looking to have a positive impact in the world,’ says Finn. ‘An organisation that would carry those values and that progressive thinking to ensure the wellbeing of staff who you’d expect to be adequately renumerated for their work. Very quickly, it became apparent that it wasn’t the place that I thought it was.’  

Tom has worked at the RSA for nearly five years. He’s set to leave soon — something, he says, many of his former colleagues have resorted to in the past year or so. ‘Management has created quite a hostile and hierarchical environment at work.’ He speaks of financial hardship and a senior management constantly at odds with its own workforce. ‘I was working on things like school exclusions, participatory democracy and social justice. The new CEO’s vision is at odds with that. It felt like he came in, re-wrote our strategy within the first few weeks and was like, “Right, all this other work you’ve been working on is going in the bin.”’

The CEO Tom refers to is Andy Haldane — a former Bank of England chief economist and current government economic adviser. According to the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), 81 out of the 111 employees have left the organisation since Haldane started as CEO in March 2022.  

‘We care about social justice and making a difference, so there is a tendency to do more because we care so much about our work. In the charity sector, that gets manipulated and exploited.’ Those are the words of Amy, a member of staff at the RSA for the past three years. She speaks to an inherent guilt that charity workers can sometimes feel when demanding more. But, in the past 12 months, the tendency to put up with poor pay and conditions out of philanthropic instinct has changed. From Shelter to St Mungo’s, the charity sector is being shaken up as workers strike back — and win.  

‘There used to be a staff representative group,’ explains Amy. ‘Staff would volunteer their own time for it. But there was no way to hold management to account. It felt very performative. So we wanted to do things better. We thought unionisation was a better way of getting staff voices heard and respected.’  

Union recognition itself has been a struggle. Workers bid for voluntary recognition three times, all of which senior management rejected. They then moved to a successful statutory recognition bid. That long and drawn-out process meant tensions had been simmering months before a pay claim was made. ‘Management were trying every trick in the book to stamp it out,’ recalls Tom.  

After securing statutory union recognition in January this year, workers put in a flat rate pay claim of £2,800. Three months later, management offered £1,000 — an offer outright rejected by members. Members would go on to vote by 93 percent for strike action on a 79 percent turnout. A week before this week’s strikes, an additional one-off payment of £500 was offered — also rejected by union members.  

Workers like Amy say it’s nowhere near enough, particularly with the cost of living in London. ‘I have colleagues who are being evicted, or their rent is being increased exponentially, and they’ve had to move because they can’t afford the flat they’re living in. It’s made life very difficult.’  

Fighting for Respect

According to the Royal Society of Arts 2022/23 Impact Report, the organisation is sat on £32 million of reserves, £9 million of which is unrestricted. ‘They could dip into that at any moment,’ says Finn. ‘Our pay claim would cost a smither of that. I spoke to a friend who works as a financial controller for a national charity. She was amazed at these numbers because her charity has nothing like the reserves we have. Charities can continue functioning with only three months’ worth of reserves.’  

The IWGB say the total cost of the pay claim is £270,000, 0.8 percent of total reserves and 3 percent of unrestricted.  

For Amy, this comes down to basic decency and respect. ‘If staff are telling you they can’t afford things and are looking for shelter, these are basic needs. It’s about recognising how difficult things are and how much work we do. Given the culture at work, motivation levels are really down because you constantly feel like your voice is not being heard.’  

Staff like Finn have been frustrated with the organisation’s direction of travel.   

‘We’ve got a CEO who is quite right-wing, who believes capitalism can still save the world. A lot of staff don’t buy into the new vision he’s imposed on the organisation. Interventions aren’t getting the same backing from funders. We’re struggling to find partners for them,’ he tells Tribune.  ‘It’s just not the progressive organisation that I thought it was. And they don’t live by my values, either.’  

‘It’s almost an out-of-body experience to be doing this,’ says Amy. ‘We never thought we’d ever go on strike. When we started this journey, we requested a voluntary agreement because we thought things could be done in a mutually cordial and respectful way, but we’ve been left with no choice.’   

But spirits have been uplifted by the solidarity shown on the picket line. Royal Society Fellows, charity workers from other organisations in the sector and members of the public have shown their support.  

‘We’ve got some support from fellows and public figures who recognise we are being treated unfairly. That’s validation for us. It’s a recognition of your worth and a plea for fairness and equality.’  

‘The RSA talk a lot about their values and changing society for the better. This dispute shows a lot of hypocrisy at play,’ says Tom. A large part of this dispute, he tells Tribune, is sending a message to the rest of the charity sector. ‘There are other charities that are looking at us as an example of how to build a union. St Mungo’s have had recent wins. We’re all pushing in the same direction. If we win this, we can prove it can be done.’  

On the RSA website, a line of text reads, ‘Whatever we can find that could be better, the RSA improves it and moves on to the next campaign.’ Speaking to workers on the picket line, it’s clear senior management doesn’t need to look very far when it comes to improvements.  

The Royal Society of Arts is responsible for creating the blue plaque scheme. And workers have made their own one this week. ‘On this site, the RSA striked for the first time in 270 years.’ RSA workers have made history this week. And senior management still has time to determine how that story will be remembered.

*The names in this article have been changed to protect interviewees.

Following publication, Tribune was contacted by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to provide further information about the details of this article. The RSA disagrees with the assessment of its working environment given pseudonymously by a worker and refers to an external audit conducted by consultants WorkNest, which described the organisation as an ‘exemplar employer for both diversity and pay equality.’ It also wishes to clarify that a substantial portion of its reserved funds are restricted in what they can be used for.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that a number of RSA workers received the London Living Wage of £25,000. The London Living Wage is £23,302.50 and the RSA minimum salary is £25,500.

About the Author

Taj Ali is an industrial correspondent at Tribune.