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Tate protests 2020
Photography Juliane Sonntag

‘Bin the excuses, save jobs’: Tate workers on why they’re striking

Staff at the London galleries are protesting plans to cut jobs and poor pay, in strike action that’s seen Turner Prize winners and Jeremy Corbyn turn up to support

After nearly five months of closure, the Tate art galleries reopened their doors to the public on July 27. What was meant to be a joyous occasion, a return to normality, was, however, overshadowed by the news that Tate Enterprises, which operates retail, catering, and publishing services across all of the Tate sites, was preparing to axe hundreds employees in a bid to stave off the financial fallout of coronavirus pandemic, despite the Tate receiving £7 million in bailout money. The job cuts would target the institution’s lowest paid employees, and disproportionately affect Black and minority ethnic staff, some of which earn little more than the national minimum – a claim that Tate management have dismissed.

In an effort to save the 313 jobs at Tate Enterprises, hundreds of Tate employees are on indefinite strike as many join socially distanced protests outside the Tate Modern and Britain. So far, the strike has gained support from Turner Prize winners, Tate collection artists Mark Leckey, Jeremy Deller, Hannah Black, and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, among others.

The strike has three main objectives: that 10 per cent of an anticipated £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 £100,000 per year; and that, if government money proves insufficient to save jobs, the Tate should join the PCS in calling for more. Below, we speak to Tate employees on why they’re taking action.


“I’m involved with the strike because I find it unacceptable that the Tate are choosing to cut 313 of their lowest paid and most diverse workers at this moment. We’re all a part of Tate Enterprises, which is considered the ‘profit-making’ company. (We’re treated) as if we contribute nothing to the institution but the funneling of visitor’s money to the gallery. In fact, people come to myself and my colleagues in the shop asking us detailed questions about the museum's collection, requesting to know which Ed van der Elsken monograph we think is the most definitive, what children’s book might be suitable for their niece who is six years old but mature for her age. People ask us how to get to Archway Station or what’s the best restaurant in Chinatown. Customers ask us where we’re from and are surprised to hear it’s the same small town on the other side of the world that they’re visiting from.

These are the kind of things we do on a daily basis beyond what the Tate sees as our sole function to generate profit. If our retail team, our catering team, our publishing and merchandising teams are cut, visitors’ experience of the museum will be extremely different. And it’s not just those who are going to be made redundant that feel this way. We’ve published statements of support for our strike through @Tate_United from Tate collection artists like Liam Gillick, Hito Steyerl, Hannah Black, Peter Davies, and Jeremy Deller; from writers like Hamja Ahsan, Juliet Jacques, and 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE; from 12 Turner Prize winners; from other artists, designers, politicians, critics, and many more. These statements are coming in fast and are increasingly high profile. We don’t know how far the Tate are willing to let their reputation fall, especially when they’re not saving that much money by cutting our jobs.”


“The arts and culture sector is currently being decimated by the fallout from the pandemic. This could all be mitigated against, but for the detached market driven logic of governance, much of this stems from having to survive wave after wave of cuts to public arts funding over the past decade, throughout which time Tory appointees filled up the Museum Boards of Trustees. People are feeling the huge damage being done now, from freelance artists and culture workers, who had previously been in relative positions of material privilege and comfort, through to the most precarious staff.

In the case they would have to self-isolate with coronavirus, Tate security guards and cleaners are only given a statutory sick pay of £95 a week, despite the unions repeated demands to Tate management. These staff are outsourced to private companies, most of whom have continued to work throughout lockdown after gaining key worker status. Rather than offering these staff occupational sick pay that’s equivalent to Tate staff, as a form of recognition for their invaluable work, Tate management are putting out messages across it’s buildings, thanking key workers and insisting that occupational sick pay is unaffordable.

Retail and catering staff are suffering the full brunt of redundancies. These staff not only perform huge amounts of invisible emotional labour and visitor care on behalf of Tate, but they generate huge amounts of profits that goes towards the running of Tate Galleries too. They’re being hung out to dry, even after the pandemic hitting BAME, disabled, and working class communities the hardest.

The management at the Tate don’t seem to want to recognise the biggest asset the institution has is it’s most precarious staff; many are artists, writers, curators, musicians, dancers, and practitioners who use their invaluable knowledge and interests to help generate profits for the Tate, who, in turn, are paid a just-livable wage. PCS won’t stop putting pressure on the Tate. We’ll do whatever it takes to reverse these decisions, to find a more equitable and just recovery from the pandemic, and the lack of adequate government support.”


“I have worked at Tate for many years now. During that time I have worked my way up to a management position. We encourage our teams to use creative thinking to problem-solve. This might be getting posters shipped in time for a kid’s birthday when we know that time is tight, or figuring out a customer’s book request when all you have to go on is the colour of the cover and a vague description of a featured artwork. When it comes to Tate deciding to remove us from the business, it seems that no creative thinking has taken place. Not one member of the team has been redeployed elsewhere in the gallery. I feel disappointed and betrayed that I have put my soul into this organisation for so long only to be restructured out of my job. Please Tate, see the bigger picture, be a bit more creative and think of an alternative to throwing 313 members of the team to the wolves.”


“When the pandemic hit, Tate Gallery loaned Enterprises £5 Million to keep us afloat. Shortly after, without asking for any assistance, Tate received £7 Million from the government. The figure the gallery loaned us isn’t a gift – in fact, we still owe them the full amount, plus interest. None of the government bailout sum has made its way to us. Tate Gallery has continued actively advertising and hiring staff – but not from Enterprises. 

Belatedly, Tate Gallery offered voluntary redundancies, on a case by case basis. Our driver’s hours were reduced by 40 per cent, with another 20 per cent to disappear soon. Yet he’s been told that he’s not eligible for voluntary redundancy, even though he’s the only person in the whole company who can legally drive a HGV! 

We’re now looking at 313 lay-offs. Enterprise staff work for less than the going rate given to retail workers for the love of the job. Many of them have been there 20 years or more and are now facing the scrap heap. On top of everything else, this is the third ‘restructuring’ Enterprises have carried out in five years. They obviously want to get rid of as many staff as possible, and when they do rehire, ensure as many of the new workers as possible aren’t unionised.”


“I am sick to my stomach with stress over this situation. Tate management has done very little to recognise the psychological impact their decisions have had on the workforce. Many of us are experiencing periods of impaired sleep, depression, anxiety, mental exhaustion, and worse as a direct result of their actions. We are already the most vulnerable staff body within Tate Commerce: being lowest paid, most precarious in our employment with short fixed-term contracts, and a predictable scapegoat for cuts in being especially numerous and diverse compared to other departments. Tate management’s continued attempts to undermine us have only added to this strain. But it has also given us more cause to band together. The union is stronger than ever, and we are more confident as a team, even if they do intend to tear us apart by the end of this. Plus there’s some joy to be found in realising that Tate hardly seem to know what’s good for them. Maybe bin your racist Rex Whistler and save some face for once? Or better yet – bin the excuses and save some jobs?”


“Past the initial and obvious feelings of anxiety, anger, and resentment, I think betrayal is at the very core of this. The Tate ‘brand’ presents itself as an institution of inclusivity, and as the Tate Director Maria Balshaw said on BBC Radio 4 just before Tate reopened its doors post lockdown: “The human practice of making art is for everyone.”

The job losses of over 300 of Tate’s most diverse workforce, yet who are the lowest paid and most vulnerable, is a huge contradiction to these values that Tate and Balshaw herself are often quoted on. It’s a betrayal to the working class that they so love to use and profit off. With the opening of the new Blavatnik building in 2017, Tate launched their “Visitor Experience Values”, a new set of values and behaviours for all FOH staff to follow, enriching the Tate visitor experience of this top cultural destination. In staff behaviour frameworks and performance reviews, our contribution to the ecosystem of Tate is scrutinised – so why is it that when it comes to protecting us amid a pandemic and a global recession, our human practice of art making isn’t even valued? It’s a betrayal.”


“Disposable and disrespected, this is how Tate has made myself and my fellow Tate Commerce colleagues feel. 313 of the lowest paid and most diverse members of staff are being made redundant, FACT. The big guns at the top, such as director Maria Balshaw, is
getting paid over 100k a year, FACT. How is that right? 

Over the last few weeks, Tate has paid an outsourced company, Onion Ltd, to create a £300 per person personality test that we were all forced to take. Some of us were emailed that we had been made redundant and then told days later that we actually weren’t, and that, actually, we have to wait 45 days to find out our fate. It’s been well over 45 days. Tate has outsourced staff for visitor experience roles that their own commerce staff, who are all facing redundancy, are qualified to do.

We are now striking indefinitely, picketing everyday and protesting most days. I am mentally exhausted, I can’t remember the last good nights sleep I had and I am having panic attacks on a daily basis. The working class hit yet again.”

You can support the strike action by donating to the Tate Commerce strike fund, writing to the Tate in support of PCS Tate United, and  following @Tate_United on Twitter and Instagram