Why Tate Staff Are on Strike

The effort to save 313 jobs at Tate Enterprises has attracted support from Turner Prize winners and former opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn 

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BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 26 AUG 20

After five days of industrial action that has attracted the support of Turner Prize-winning artists, arts educators and the former leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, employees of Tate Commerce (part of Tate Enterprises Ltd) are on indefinite strike. It follows the announcement earlier this month that 313 jobs – nearly half of TEL’s total staff – are to be lost across Tate’s retail, restaurant and publishing divisions. Speaking to frieze, a retail assistant of more than eight years, who wished to remain anonymous, said: ‘This is about putting pressure on to make Tate realize that it’s unsustainable for them to continue with these redundancies. When the cuts were announced it went so deep that it was incredibly shocking – it’s an action that has been taken too quickly and is panic-driven.’ 

The strike has three main objectives: that 10 percent of an anticipated GB£7 million in government bailout money be used to save jobs; that there should be no redundancies while some senior Tate staff are paid more than GB£100,000 per year; and that, if government money proves insufficient to save jobs, Tate should join the UK’s Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in calling for more. The demands have been taken up by the ten recipients of this year’s GB£10,000 Turner Prize Bursaries, who have issued an open letter expressing solidarity. It states their anger and disappointment that the ‘spirit of support’ shown by Tate in awarding the bursaries in July, in place of the cancelled 2020 Turner Prize exhibition, has not been carried through to the institution’s own employees. The letter adds that those under threat of redundancy are some of Tate’s ‘lowest paid, most precarious and most disadvantaged members of staff’. BAME staff are expected to be disproportionately affected by the job losses – a claim that Tate management has dismissed. 

Tate Strike, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United
Tate Strike, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United

The Glasgow-based artist Jamie Crewe instigated the letter. They explain: ‘I feel strongly that artists are workers and we should stand in solidarity with other workers. [Tate’s decision] seems like such a dereliction of loyalty, responsibility and stewardship. These institutions need to catch up and reflect the values of the artists they’re working with – and the values of their staff, too.’

A joint statement from Tate director Maria Balshaw and CEO Vicky Cheetham expressed ‘sadness’ about the redundancies but argued that there are no other options: ‘This has been necessary because of the loss of revenue during the lockdown and the dramatic drop in footfall in our galleries since reopening. We know directors in Tate Enterprises Ltd have worked hard to protect as many jobs as possible and to support the staff, particularly those affected by the redundancies, whilst Tate Gallery has supported Tate Enterprises with GB£5 million from its reserves to ensure the future of the business.’

Tate Strike, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United; photograph: Jakub Wijzer
Tate Strike, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United; photograph: Jakub Wajzer

While there is recognition of the financial stress that COVID-19 has put on many arts organizations – London’s Southbank Centre, for instance, has announced plans to cut its workforce by two thirds – the focus on mainly low-paid, non-gallery staff has created a clear ‘us and them’ narrative. Writer and filmmaker Juliet Jacques – who, along with Corbyn and the artist Mark Leckey, among others, addressed a recent strike protest at Tate Modern – believes battle lines are being drawn. ‘There is a divide in the arts,’ she says. ‘It’s becoming increasingly clear to artists that there’s a side to pick.’

For Oreet Ashery, one of the Turner Prize Bursary recipients, Tate’s actions are out of step with the progressive attitudes it claims to embody. Tate, she told me, needs to ‘rethink their actions and lead the way towards a politics of hope and progress’. Fellow bursary artist Sean Edwards also expressed to me his frustration and anger with Tate’s decision: ‘When an organization is given GB£7 million to weather the difficulties brought about by COVID-19, you would expect the workers to be the first ones protected.’ 

Jeremy Corbyn addressing the protest outside Tate Modern, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United
Jeremy Corbyn addressing the protest outside Tate Modern, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United

Other artists are coming forward to voice their support for the strikers, with a second open letter from more than 100 UK-based art educators published earlier this week. The 2019 Turner Prize joint-winner Lawrence Abu Hamdan says in a statement, published on the Instagram account of PCS Tate United: ‘Art and all that we try to say with our art is meaningless if the institutions in which we exhibit our work cannot meet the most reasonable demands of their workers.’ As for the striking Tate Modern bookshop worker, his disillusionment with the organization is clear: ‘We’ve been told for years that we’re one Tate, that we’re part of a larger family, that we’re in this together. And then, when it came to this point, what hurt most was that it was just business as usual.’

Main image: Tate Strike, 2020. Courtesy: Tate United; photograph: Juliane Sonntag 

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt

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