Southbank workers fight 70% cuts

Submitted by AWL on 30 September, 2020 - 7:49 Author: Gareth Spencer
Southbank protest

Southbank Centre [in London] is cutting its staff headcount by 70%, but this will only reduce the payroll by an estimated 38%. The lowest-paid staff with minimum hours contracts in the Visitor Experience and Ticketing teams are to be cut entirely, as there is no prospect of the Royal Festival Hall fully reopening to the public until April 2021.

The Exhibition Hosts at the Hayward Gallery, who’ve spent the past month reopening the gallery in a new Covid-secure way, have also been told that they will be made redundant when the current exhibition closes on 31 October.

In 2018-19, the Chief Executive of Southbank Centre, Elaine Bedell, received a pay rise from £194k in 2017/18 to £241k in 2018/19. Like other members of the Senior Leadership Team at Southbank Centre she has taken a 20% pay cut until April 2021, so will only be earning £170k whilst she makes the 150 hosts who live on a 12 hour per week contract at £10.75 per hour redundant.

The Visitor Experience, Ticketing & Membership and Hayward Exhibition Host teams also are the most diverse teams in the organisation and following their removal, Southbank Centre has become 6% more white overnight. The Senior Leadership Team dealt with the BAME Staff Network’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests in May and June patronisingly and with a heavy hand. An anonymous group of staff circulated an open letter which was met with the response “but we don’t have time for this now.”

Alongside the consultation and negotiations, our branch coordinated protests outside Southbank Centre on 1 August and 29 August, each attended by nearly 200 people. We were also joined by front of house staff from the National Theatre and Vanessa Redgrave who spoke in solidarity with the cuts to over 200 workers. On 12 September a group of workers from across the arts and culture sector marched with the Tate United PCS branch from Tate Modern to DCMS in Whitehall. In a rally addressed by Owen Jones, the demand was made to extend the furlough scheme for those in the cultural industries.

Great solidarity from the art world has been shown to us and our members. All of the artists involved in Hayward Touring’s British Art Show 9, due to take place in 2021, signed an open letter condemning the redundancies. The Turner Prize winning artist, Jeremy Deller, donated a banner to our branch which bears a poignant quote from James Baldwin which resonates with many of our now unemployed members: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

During the panicked days of late March, Southbank Centre, like many others of the UK’s cultural venues, closed its doors to the public and went into lockdown to protect staff and visitors alike from Covid-19.

All concerts and events in the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall were cancelled and the recently opened Among the Trees exhibition at Hayward Gallery was put on hold. With the restaurants and shops closed and without tickets being sold, it quickly became apparent that due to a combination of historic debt (approximately £22 million) and an Arts Council England (ACE) funding model which only provided 37% of necessary turnover, there was an existential threat to our members’ livelihoods and the future of the organisation itself.

The initial Covid-19 lockdown was a new organising opportunity for our reps. Using the informal whatsapp and facebook groups staff use to swap shifts we were able to keep staff up to date about the rapidly changing situation and recruited over 50 members in March and April.

Throughout the furlough we’ve emailed members every week and held mass branch meetings of over 200 members. Whilst we haven’t used it ourselves, PCS has set up a phone bank for branches to use during campaigns and ballots. We also set up an Instagram account for our first protest in August that already has over 600 followers.

Southbank Centre failed to gain any emergency funding from ACE in the summer and is yet to receive either grants or loans from the Government’s much heralded Culture Recovery Fund. Therefore the Senior Leadership Team gave us in the PCS union branch and our colleagues in the Unite branch a redundancy warning in July which put over 400 staff at risk.

Given the dire state of the finances they also proposed to slash previously agreed redundancy terms from three weeks for every year of service to just above statutory. Since then there has been a long and frustrating consultation with various departments and then individuals through August and September.

In the last week of the consultation the PCS branch submitted a formal statutory strike ballot which led almost immediately to an improved offer on redundancy terms to almost half our original agreement. Our members will be expected to sign individual settlement agreements to gain these enhanced terms.

• Gareth Spencer is the Branch Secretary of PCS Southbank Centre Branch, writing here in a personal capacity

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