By Dave Reid
PCS members at the National Museum of Wales (NMW) have voted by 78% to accept an improved offer from museum management to end the long running dispute arising from the cut to premium payments for weekend working.
The museum strike has had a major impact on the labour movement in Wales. Museum workers have been on continuous strike for two months in a dispute that has lasted two years. Their determination and enthusiasm has inspired the trade union movement in Wales and across the UK. They led the Cardiff May Day march organised by Cardiff Trades Union Council and organised a series of rallies for the strike which drew wide support. The appearances by strikers were the highlights of the PCS and Wales TUC conferences.
Support and solidarity has poured in from as far afield as Portugal, with the Lisbon dockers sending messages of support. Tens of thousands of pounds were raised in solidarity from trade branches and organisations. Working people in Wales rallied round with brilliant support for the strikers. For example, £420 was raised by NSSN and Socialist Party members in just three collections outside Cardiff stations. Museum workers also supported other workers by joining the BFAWU picket line at RF Brookes.
Two years ago museum management announced it intended to cut weekend premium payments for museum workers. With most museum workers expected to work weekends – some have only one Sunday off in three – this amounted to a big pay cut, especially for the lower paid workers. Cleaners, for example, will lose £200 a month. Management, who were losing nothing from their inflated salaries, offered them compensation equivalent to two years of loss of pay, but it would still have amounted to a big pay cut.
It’s apparent that a trend is developing in both the public and private sector for management and employers to specifically target the elimination of weekend payments in order to cut down on their costs. The trade union movement must send out a clear message that hard fought, historically gained terms and conditions will be defended robustly against employers who attempt to drive through these changes as well as opposing those who believe they can simply buy them out.
A series of one day strikes did not force the museum’s management to back down who threatened the workers with the sack and the imposition of contracts. So at the end of April indefinite strike action was called at seven of the eight sites. The strike closed two museums for two months and seriously affected the operation of the others. Big Pit museum staffed by ex-miners has been at the forefront of the struggle even though the miners would not have lost out as much as some of the other workers. They knew that the lower paid workers need the premiums, and have been absolutely solid at the forefront of the strike.
The calling of the indefinite strike jolted the Welsh government into action. The National Museum of Wales is funded and overseen by the Welsh government. PCS branch officers met Welsh Labour leader and First Minister, Carwyn Jones on the first day of the indefinite strike. Earlier in the dispute Jones had fobbed the workers off; but with indefinite strike action called and the Assembly elections a few days away, he promised that he would settle the dispute. New funds for the NMW were found and eventually, after a deliberate hesitation to save face, management came forward with an improved offer.
The securing of extra funds from the Welsh government by strike action was a significant step forward. Union members in Welsh councils should follow the example of the NMW and refuse to capitulate when they’re told there’s no more money, instead step up industrial action if necessary.
The deal does not save the weekend premium payments but improves the compensation payments worth five years of allowances, instead of two; an option to take this over four years as pensionable payments. There is also a reduction in weekend work and a 4% pay rise in 2017.
The offer is a big improvement on the original proposal, amounting to nearly £5,000 per worker extra, but falls short of defending the weekend premium payments. New starters, for example, will not get weekend premium payments. Some workers are disappointed that the weekend premiums have not been retained, others felt that it would take a big new initiative to force further concessions from the bosses and the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government seems to believe that the strike was solely about the workers trying to defend their own conditions, but the museum workers were very conscious of fighting for each other, and also to maintain pay, conditions and stable employment for future workers – of holding the line against low pay and casualisation.
But everyone realises that the gains that have been made are down to the resolute and courageous action by the strikers over many weeks of action. Branch officers are also determined to keep up the fight to return the weekend premiums: “We see the deal not as the end of the war, but the end of the first battle”, one of the officers said.
The Welsh government is discussing bringing cultural institutions in Wales into one organisation including National Museum of Wales, CADW and the National Library, all organised by PCS. It is likely that there would be a unified set of terms and conditions. Staff in other institutions have retained weekend allowances and so there is an opportunity for workers at the National Museum of Wales to win back weekend allowances provided there is the full involvement of NMW reps in the negotiations.
It should not be taken for granted by PCS that the Welsh Government will equalise terms and conditions upwards. The government could have intervened to ensure workers’ weekends are protected at the NMW but this ‘friend of the workers’ stood by while they attacked by museum bosses and have not insisted that weekend premiums are retained in the new deal. So there has to be a resolute negotiating stance and a readiness to continue the campaign if weekend payments are to be won back.
Geraint Parfitt, one of the leaders of the strike, will be addressing the National Shop Stewards Network conference in London on 2nd July. For tickets for the South Wales coach, contact Alec Thraves on 07890 680685.