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Praising Culture Doesn’t Pay the Bills

Liverpool’s celebrated local museums pay so poorly that its workers go home to cold homes and empty cupboards. It’s no wonder they have gone on strike to demand the better wages they deserve.

Picketing museum workers march down Liverpool Pier Head.

Liverpool is, in many ways, an archetypal ‘post-industrial’ city. Following the decline of its historic docks and manufacturing industries at the end of the twentieth century, the city’s ‘regeneration’ was led by the growth of its tourism and culture industry. Now, the Merseyside area boasts seven museums and galleries under the banner of National Museums Liverpool (NML), drawing in 2.7 million visitors per year.

Yet unsurprisingly, the city has never lost its place as a site of militant industrial struggle. Recently, a new dispute is being fought by workers of its supposedly post-industrial heritage sector. More than 100 staff across all NML sites are in the midst of an eight-week strike, following a ballot of PCS union members in which an overwhelming 94 percent voted yes.

Members have been in dispute for eight months after NML refused to pay a cost-of-living payment to its workers last year. The one-off £1,500 payment was promised to all civil service staff after a successful national campaign by PCS, and NML is the only employer out of 207 public sector organisations that has not paid. Tribune spoke to union branch reps Casey Burgess and Matt Exley to find out what members are fighting for.

A Clear Moral Case

The point of contention in the dispute is whether museum staff are eligible for the payment. NML has taken the stance that staff are not civil servants and therefore not eligible. But, as Matt points out, NML is paid by central government, with over £20 million of taxpayer’s money coming from the Department of Culture Media and Sport in grant aid each year. ‘That’s what pays the wages of most of the workers. We’re in the civil service pensions scheme… We’re civil servants when it suits them, and we’re not civil servants when it suits them. The ball’s always in their court.’

Casey argues that regardless of the legalities, ‘there’s a clear moral case that members deserve a cost-of-living payment’. Despite the union being able to secure a 30 percent pay rise for some of the lowest-paid workers, rising inflation means their real pay is no higher than four years ago. NML celebrate being a living wage employer, but, as Casey points out, in April the living wage will only be 54p an hour more than minimum wage: ‘NML are patting themselves on the back for the bare minimum and keeping people at poverty levels.’

Matt explains: ‘We can tell you stories of people having Weetabix for dinner because they’ve run out of money at the end of the month, people who are sitting watching telly in their coats because they can’t afford to put the heating on, people with holes in their shoes, people who have to walk three miles home because they can’t afford the bus fare.’

And it’s not just those on the lowest wages. Regular pickets outside the World Museum and Museum of Liverpool have brought together staff from the entire breadth of the workplace, representing a wide scope of pay bands from A to E. As a learning participation manager, Matt is on band E. But he tells me that at the end of the month, even he has run out of money and has to make complicated decisions about where his money goes: ‘That’s something I didn’t have to do five or seven years ago. We’ve seen wage stagnation, a concertina of wages at the bottom, which is absolutely disgusting.’

Casey adds that this growing wage gap represents a huge disconnect between the bosses on thousands every month and the workers, and a ‘gap in understanding of what it means to be in poverty, what it means to be at the receiving end of a cost-of-living crisis’.

Derisory Compromises

The Director of NML, Laura Pye, has said that the organisation cannot afford to meet the union’s full demands, offering a measly £250, two days annual leave, and free tea and coffee instead (which back-of-house workers already have). This has been rejected by union reps, who say their members will not accept anything less than the £1,500 they are owed.

Matt points out the irony of this treatment towards workers, as NML are keen to celebrate the city’s legacy of radicalism and working class struggles in the Museum of Liverpool’s ‘People’s Republic’ gallery: ‘We’ve got sections about the Kirkby rent strike, the dockers’ strike, we’ve got one of the oldest trade union banners… But at the moment, to access that material and look at those stories, you’d have to walk past a picket line of workers who have not been properly paid, valued or respected by their employer.’

Clearly the strike is about more than just the one-off payment, but about how heritage workers are undervalued as ‘ambassadors’ of culture. With similar strikes by Tate and British Museum workers in recent years, there is newfound attention and understanding of the important work that heritage staff undertake despite shockingly low pay, precarity, and poor working conditions. Casey hopes that the NML strike will spark a national conversation about the state of the sector and set a precedent for industrial action elsewhere.

Matt argues, ‘If we valued culture as much as we say we do in Liverpool, we should pay an aspirational amount of pay to people who keep culture going. We look after priceless objects, but the most priceless thing that we have is our staff. It’s not right that people who give this amazing visitor experience and showcase Liverpool as a city of culture are going home to cold homes and empty cupboards.’

Falling to Bits

This must also be seen within a larger context of the continued destruction of arts and heritage by successive Tory governments. Chronic underfunding has left many museums and galleries in dire circumstances, which staff bear the brunt of through relentless job cuts and restructuring. This has led to museums operating on a minimal labour force, overburdened with unmanageable workloads often beyond workers’ specialisms.

Casey tells me that during the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, museums were instructed by DCMS to be ‘warm havens’ for the general public, but because of lack of funding, they can’t afford to heat the buildings. Matt adds: ‘Taking the workers aside for a second and consider that the National Gallery of the North of England went down to 1 degree. If you’re a Holbein painting, that’s probably not the best condition to survive in!’ Ultimately, a heritage industry built on shoestring budgets and poverty-line wages not only hurts employees but also jeopardises precious collections.

The strike has seen incredible solidarity from members of the public, Liverpool City MPs and other unions such as UNISION, RMT and NEU, which has galvanised members and made them feel part of a wider movement. Matt says, ‘I bloody love a strike… a strike does nothing if not get members more switched on, more engaged, more organised.’ This has already prompted a huge increase in branch membership and the formation of stronger networks within the workplace. From an organisational point of view, Casey points out, ‘It’s an unbelievable network now. We’ve got people who would have never met each other in work all outside on the picket line, forming those relationships, swapping stories and comparing notes.’

When asked if they were hopeful about the outcome, Matt said, ‘I’m not hopeful’. However, he goes on, ‘I’m confident that we have to win this, because there is no alternative. We can’t not win this.’ Regardless of whether the strike is successful, this burgeoning trade union militancy offers hope for an accessible, well-funded and decently paid heritage sector in the years to come.

As Matt argues, ‘We should never have to make a choice in this country between culture or other essential services’. The strike has shown that public arts and culture are essential parts of any civilised society — and must be protected with the same vigour and determination as any other industry.