Yesterday saw Britain's biggest strike in forty years, with more than 2 million public sector workers taking the streets to protest against the government's proposed pension reform. Despite Prime Minister David Cameron dismissing what he called the "irresponsible and damaging strikes" as "a damp squib," 62 percent of England's state schools were closed, 30,000 routine NHS operations postponed, and public services disrupted throughout the country, including at 10 Downing Street.
Museums and galleries were also affected. Graham Steel, a senior national officer at PCS, the Public and Commercial Services union, which counts around 290,000 members, told ARTINFO UK: "We've had the best support for a strike we've ever had in the cultural sector. [And yet] it's not a part of our union that is in any way militant, or indeed one of our strongest areas. A lot of people who work in the cultural sector are extremely dedicated to what they do, and the last thing they want to see is their museum, or their gallery not delivering the kind of services they normally do."
In London, an estimated 25,000 people were striking. ArtLyst reported a mass gathering of museum workers yesterday morning on Exhibition Road, South Kensington, including staff members of the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the V&A, as well as representatives from most of the capital's main galleries, including the two Tates and the British Museum.
"They were only able to partially open the National Gallery," said PCS's Steel. "The well-known da Vinci exhibition was open, but the ordinary collection was closed all day. And likewise, we understand that there were only two exhibition rooms open at the British Museum. Tate Modern, Tate Britain, and places like the Imperial War Museum and the British Library — they all had to operate on a skeleton staff. We certainly have the biggest impact we've ever seen in the sector.
When contacted by ARTINFO UK, most major London museums were unable (or unwilling) to state how many of their members struck. Only the NHM stated: "Approximately 70 members of museum staff were on strike yesterday. The Museum was open as usual, and the experience of visitors discovering the natural world wasn’t affected."
Steel estimates that 80 percent of the PCS members in bigger galleries, and 60 percent in smaller galleries were on strike yesterday. The strike action was also well followed by members of PCS's sister union Prospect. The National Museums Liverpool, Tyne & Wear Archives Museums, the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston and the McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Inverclyde were all closed. Prospect says that museum workers in York, Leeds, Bradford and Scotland were also protesting yesterday.
"What the government is proposing is that our members will pay more for their pensions, that they will have to wait longer to get it, and when they receive the pension, it will actually be worth less — so it's not an attractive proposition," said Steel. "Together with the cuts in the funding for the arts generally in the UK, you can see why people who care about the arts are saying: enough is enough."
"It's not just because people are worried about their pension or their pay as a result of the cuts [that they strike]," he continued, "they are also very worried about what that's going to mean for their galleries and their ability, going forward, to put on the kind of exhibitions they have become very proud off. They are worried about the future of arts funding per se in the UK. That's been a big issue for them."
Unions have predicted further action in the new year if an agreement is not reached.