Tate that

A festive protest at a key London art gallery raises the profile of poor pay in one of the richest c

What do you need to earn per hour to support yourself in London? You won’t be surprised to hear that the national minimum wage of £5.52 per hour is nowhere near enough. In fact, research by the GLA’s Living Wage Unit shows that a wage of at least £7.20 per hour is what it takes to provide enough for the basics of life here in the capital.

Yet far too few of London’s workers receive this amount: around 400,000 Londoners fall into a ‘working poverty gap’, with their families receiving less than they need to get by. These families will be running up debts all year round, and as a result will be finding Christmas virtually impossible to manage.

So, that’s why I was more than happy to join the London Citizens’ living wage campaigners on Friday to sing myself hoarse as part of an audacious protest at the Tate Modern art gallery.

More about the protest itself in a second, but first I’ll explain why the living wage campaign is interested in the Tate gallery. South London Citizens (one of four major coalitions across London that make up the London Citizens organisation) has been trying to persuade the Tate to become a living wage employer for nearly a year, but still the board are refusing to ensure their 50 or so cleaners and catering staff are paid the London living wage of £7.20. Most of the cleaners are in fact on the national minimum wage and many have never received a pay rise above the minimum.

For a hugely successful gallery group, and one which is endowed with millions of pounds that came originally from the profits of a sugar industry that boomed thanks to slave labour, this is not good enough, so along we went on Friday to escalate the campaign.

A Christmas time protest at the Tate Modern is almost obliged to be both festive and arty, and the organisers had come up with something brilliant. It so happens that the gallery’s massive Turbine Hall is currently hosting artist Doris Salcedo’s installation of a 167 metre giant crack along the length of the hall’s floor, which appears to show the building literally coming apart. The piece is, among other things, a representation of the gap between the rich and the underclass in modern society, so it provided a perfect foil for our action.

Posing as a diverse range of ordinary art fans, around 100 of us waited for our signal (a lone singer and then lined up each side of the crack to link hands and solemnly sing together a range of Christmas Carols. After these songs, we filed out of the huge entrance doors – still singing – to join the more traditional union picket and brass band outside to continue performing seasonal songs with slightly doctored lyrics , including ‘we wish you a merry workforce’ (my favourite).

The effect of all this was so moving that we drew a large audience of spectators inside the gallery and the action inside was described on air as ‘incredibly impressive’ by the BBC reporter sent to cover it.

For me, the most impressive thing about the event was that a high proportion of the demonstrators were actual, in the flesh, vicars. This is because this highly radical campaign is being organised largely by faith groups and churches across London, alongside unions and student groups. Convinced by the rightness of their demands on behalf of the workers of London, these organisers are prepared to be more militant than most NGOs and are not afraid to be confrontational in their actions or scared to name and shame offending companies.

This radicalism means that they are really getting results, and hopes of eventual success with the Tate are therefore high. London Citizens’ work has already led to £10 million a year being paid in higher wages across London, with universities, hospitals and the Olympic Delivery Authority already committed to paying a living wage to their lowest paid employees. The Tate is clearly able to afford to pay all its staff decently, and the board cannot be happy at being shamed in such an eyecatching way at Christmas time by a group that includes so many Christians.

A similar protest at Citigroup in Canary Wharf at Halloween got a very quick response that means all their cleaners have the chance to support their families decently on their wages. In a city as rich as ours, there’s no reason why all big companies can’t do the same. I just hope we don’t have to send the vicars round to every one.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.