I remember applying to work at the Royal Society of Arts. It seemed perfect — a historic social change organisation that shared my progressive values and strived to build a more equal society for all. I was proud to be joining a community built up by fellows like Nelson Mandela, who stood up against injustice and fought on the side of the oppressed.
Last week, my once deeply held respect for the RSA gave way to disgust. I came into work to find that, with no consultation or warning, the RSA was hosting a fundraiser for Israel — a celebration and promotion of an apartheid regime with senior Israeli and UK government figures in attendance.
On 14 December, my colleagues and I arrived at work to find Israeli flags being unfurled. Only then were we informed that the organisation was set to host an event that day titled ‘RESTART IL ECONOMY’, a fundraiser for Israeli businesses. In attendance would be the Israeli ambassador, Tzipi Hotovely, who just the day before had appeared on Sky News ruling out the possibility of a Palestinian state. Other speeches planned included a remote address from Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, who recently described Gaza’s civilian population as ‘human animals’. When staff realised what was happening, many of us left the building in protest.
Later that day, we received an email from the RSA’s Chief Operating Officer telling us that the organisation was unaware of the full nature of the event when it was first booked. In a subsequent public statement, the RSA would claim they had understood the event to be booked by ‘a UK/Israel business forum’, and only found out the previous afternoon that senior government officials from Israel and the UK would be in attendance.
Obviously, many staff and fellows remain incredulous. If the claims are true, it speaks to an extreme lack of competence on the part of management for failing to undergo the proper due diligence checks that would be expected in any organisation, not only to protect the reputation of the RSA but to ensure that staff were kept safe. Even if the full extent of management’s knowledge was that this would be a ‘UK/Israel business forum’, the decision to host such an event whilst ethnic cleansing unfolds in Gaza would still make the organisation complicit in Israel’s war crimes and go against the RSA’s values.
Many staff were determined to remind the RSA of these values, and to voice our strong opposition to management’s worrying new direction. Whilst front-of-house staff had to remain inside the building despite their unease, fearing for their jobs, many other workers left in protest as soon as they could. A group of staff joined the demonstration outside at midday, standing with the protestors as the police presence intensified and eventually forced them to move on under the threat of arrest. Just weeks after picketing at the same spot for fair pay, staff once again had to confront the RSA for betraying its commitments to equality, justice and progressive change. The union called out this hypocrisy in a statement on social media, and over the next few days, staff from across the organisation collaborated on an internal letter to management condemning the event and demanding accountability.
The following week, I spoke to several distressed colleagues. People were being pulled into one-to-one meetings and told that they were expected to remain ‘apolitical’, that they should not read stories in the press, and that they should remember they were ‘spokespeople’ for the RSA. At a time when emotions were already running high, we felt we were being intimidated by senior management, and that our support for Palestine, even in a personal capacity, was being curtailed.
Sadly, this treatment from management is something staff have been accustomed to in the last two years under CEO Andy Haldane’s leadership. Only last year, during our fight for union recognition with the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, one of our colleagues, Ruth Hannan, was illegally fired for taking part in trade union activity — the first-ever breach of employment law in the organisation’s 270-year history. More recently, as we started striking for fair pay, we have become used to threatening, bullying letters, patronising and intimidating staff meetings, spurious allegations of ‘law breaking’ and a refusal to engage with our union in good faith and negotiate properly with staff.
It’s clear to many of us that under the current leadership, the organisation has shed its values and contorted itself into something unrecognisable. A vibrant, talented workforce has been demoralised and muted by an autocratic, anti-worker management style, and shameful managerial choices have somehow led us to host Israeli government officials whilst war crimes are committed in Gaza.
Our ongoing fight is not just about pay. It’s about the soul of the RSA. This organisation drew so many of us in with its vision of ‘a world where everyone can fulfil their potential and contribute to more resilient, rebalanced and regenerative futures’, to quote the RSA’s own vision statement. Sadly that vigour to build a more progressive, equal world has been stifled.
Despite what we have to endure at the RSA, the disgusting events that took place on 14 December, and the best efforts of senior management, we refuse to stand by and allow management to wear down our workforce and destroy our organisation’s proud reputation. We will continue to fight for a better RSA.