Almost one in five staff at the Science Museum Group took part in a recent strike against low pay

Institutions starting to pay a heavy price for low wages

Geraldine Kendall Adams, Issue 119/10, 01.10.2019
Low salaries have always been endemic in the arts sector, but recent industrial action at several museums suggests that employees who were willing to make sacrifices during austerity are now being pushed to their limits. Geraldine Kendall Adams investigates
“Living wage – not workers’ rage!” read one of the placards at the Science Museum Group (SMG) strike in August, when 18% of the organisation’s workers took part in a protest  against a below-inflation pay rise and its failure to offer its lowest-paid workers the Real Living Wage.  

Low salaries have been endemic in museums since the earliest days of the profession, but recent events suggest that staff have had enough – and are increasingly willing to take radical measures over pay. In addition to industrial action at the SMG – where a further strike was being discussed as Museums Journal went to press – staff at the Museum of London also voted recently to take action over a below-inflation pay rise of 1.5%.  

This comes on the back of successful action by front-of-house staff at Royal Museums Greenwich, who secured better pay and conditions, including a commitment from the organisation to work towards paying the Real Living Wage, after conducting several walkouts in 2018. 

Tate employees also secured more-favourable terms after voting in favour of strike action earlier this year.  

The austerity of the past decade has seen wages frozen or cut at publicly run institutions across the UK, while the cost of living has soared, with inflation averaging 3.1% a year since 2009. This has pushed some museum staff below the breadline, according to Elliott Wilders, a technician and Prospect union representative at London’s Science Museum, who says some of his colleagues have had to take second jobs to supplement their income.  

“Front-of-house pay has been below inflation for the past seven years – it goes down more and more every year,” says Wilders. “The cost of living is always going up and staff can’t afford to live in South Kensington, so they commute in, which is not cheap. For so many staff to be living in their overdraft every month is not sustainable. We all love working here and want the museum to succeed, but we have to make ends meet.” 

The SMG has not put out a statement since the strike, but its position is that the pay settlement is the best it can offer “given the challenging overall financial picture”. It also points to improvements made to employee benefits this year, while the lowest-paid staff – 23% of those involved in the disputed pay settlement – received an increase of 6.9%. That figure seems generous, but at £10.19 per hour, it’s still below the Real Living Wage, which has been calculated as £10.55 per hour in London for 2019-20.  

Heightened tensions

News that the organisation’s director, Ian Blatchford, received a 5.5% pay rise plus a bonus of between £20,000 and £25,000 this year has caused further tension among workers. “It was a kick in the teeth for some of our lowest-paid staff,” says Wilders. “His bonus alone is more than we get in a year.” 

The pay issue is having an impact on the wellbeing of staff (see p28) and the quality of their work. “Morale has been pretty low for a long time,” adds Wilders. “There’s no sense of progression and a high turnover – it’s shocking how many people leave the SMG to work in other museums. That has an impact on the services we can provide. It disrupts things.” 

Across the heritage sector, there are signs that staff who were willing to make sacrifices during austerity have reached their limit. “There’s more industrial action being talked about than I can remember for a very long time,” says Alan Leighton, the national secretary at Prospect, which represents thousands of professionals in the museum sector. 

“Overall within the sector, there’s been a growth in militancy,” he says. “People are starting to say ‘we’ve had enough’. They see others taking action and think ‘we should have the courage to do the same’. It’s been quite empowering.” 

This is reflected in Prospect’s membership figures, which are up by 50% over the past year at some institutions. The number of young people getting involved is particularly encouraging, says Leighton, disproving the stereotype that they are not interested in joining unions. 
 
There’s no doubt that museums are operating in a tough financial environment after years of cuts – and with high fixed costs, salaries can be a soft target. But for national museums in particular, several developments have given this argument less grounding. The spending review, announced by the government last month, confirmed that grant-in-aid for those institutions would rise in line with inflation, removing some of the uncertainty that had held them back from committing to better wages.   

Meanwhile, in 2015, national institutions gained increased freedom over their spending decisions after arguing that, because they were earning a greater proportion of their income privately rather than from the state, they should no longer be restricted to the same limits and oversight as other public bodies. This means that they can set pay levels higher than those of other public-sector employees – but not all venues have taken advantage.  

“Some organisations are saying that it’s all very well having these freedoms, but we can’t afford to pay more than the government’s pay policy anyway,” says Leighton. 

Attitudes to salaries differ even among close neighbours – another placard at the SMG strike read “pay me more or I’ll move next door”, in reference to the fact that the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum offer the Real Living Wage, and gave pay rises in line with inflation this year.  

New approach

Others are starting to take a new approach to wages altogether. “What is interesting is that some institutions such as Tate and the National Gallery are taking a view that rather than pay being at the end of their decision-making, after budgeting for things like exhibitions, they are factoring it more firmly into their overall budget,” says Leighton. 

He calls for organisations such as the National Museum Directors’ Council to campaign more strongly to bring other institutions in line. Although pay among civic museums can be shockingly low, many smaller institutions have also led the way on better pay policies. Dundee Heritage Trust in Scotland, for example, recently announced that it will pay the Real Living Wage at its sites.  

Falling behind

Museum pay levels have long fallen behind those in other industries. The Museums Association’s (MA) most recent salary guidelines found that some roles – particularly at entry and junior level – can pay up to 25% less than equivalent positions outside the sector. This is having a worrying long-term impact. “A lot of people have been leaving the sector,” says Leighton. “More and more museums are finding it harder to recruit for roles.”  

Low pay is also one of the most frequently cited reasons behind the sector’s alarming elitism and lack of diversity. “We need to attract more diverse candidates or we’ll lose even the modest gains we’ve made in the past few years,” says Alistair Brown, the MA’s policy manager.
  
So what can be done about the issue? “It’s a complex problem and the answers must come from a variety of sources,” says Brown. At policy level, the MA continues to support and campaign for higher pay through its salary guidelines, which it plans to update in the near future. But it needs leadership from the top, he adds.  

“The political situation may be fraught but we have just seen some increased public investment. I hope companies and directors are thinking about how they can use that to reward staff who have been through a long and difficult period of seeing their wages stagnate,” says Brown.

Everyone deserves to be fairly recompensed for their time, skills, qualifications and knowledge

The Science Museum Group and Royal Museums Greenwich strikes highlighted the fundamental issue that many jobs in museums and heritage just do not pay enough to live on. In such a highly qualified sector, where expensive postgraduate qualifications are constantly deemed essential, it’s outrageous that many organisations will not consider paying the Real Living Wage.
 
We applaud the Institute of Conservation’s announcement that entry-level conservators should be paid at least £27,108, recognising the training that conservators go through before their first job. If you want highly qualified candidates, you must be willing to pay for them.

This, of course, assumes that you can see the salary in a job advert. Many organisations insist on stating “salary: commensurate with experience” or “negotiable”. Evidence states this disadvantages candidates from under-represented backgrounds, exacerbates the gender pay gap and can leave candidates in a stressful state of financial uncertainty.

The Museums Association’s salary guidelines are a good starting point. At Fair Museum Jobs, we would welcome robust implementation of these by everyone advertising jobs in the sector. Nobody goes into this sector to become a millionaire, but all of us deserve to be fairly recompensed for our time, skills, qualifications and knowledge. Fair Museum Jobs campaigns on transparent and fair recruitment, pay and jobs in museums and heritage. 

Louise McAward-White writing on behalf of the Fair Museum Jobs campaign group


Fair Museum Jobs will be leading a session at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Brighton (3-5 October)

Comments