Despite throwing billions at big landlords and banks, it seems the Tories consider the performing arts an acceptable casualty of the coronavirus. Physical shows have been suspended under social distancing, and a staggering 70 per cent of British theatres now face permanent closure.
This amounts to nearly 400,000 performers, technicians and service staff being put out of work, and a total financial loss of £74bn.
The impact on practitioners is exacerbated due to the high level of casualisation in the sector, with thousands of workers excluded from income support schemes.
Big theatre chains and chartered companies like the National Theatre will pull through thanks to subsidies and deep reserves. But they are already preparing for a raft of redundancies, with the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (BECTU) anticipating layoffs of 30 per cent or more at the NT.
“Too little, too late”
In response to this, BECTU should demand that these large companies (whose bosses earn handsome salaries) open their books to scrutiny. If they really cannot remain open without mass firings, then they should be taken over by the state.
A letter signed by BECTU and the Musicians’ Union – along with 100 prominent performers, technicians, and heads of major arts companies – was published in the Guardian. It warned Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Chancellor Rishi Sunak of an “existential threat” to British theatre, and pleaded for emergency measures to keep the lights on.
These include a programme of tax relief, a massive job retention scheme, and a “national pledge for culture”.
But the Tories have no intention of coming to the sector’s rescue. The government recently announced plans to provide £1.6 billion in emergency funding for the arts. However, with theatres and music venues expected to be closed until next year, and jobs in the culture sector already being shed left-right-and-centre, this lifeline falls well short of what is required.
Head of BECTU Philippa Childs said she was “stunned” at the Tories’ insulting complacency. Labour's Shadow Culture Secretary Jo Stevens, meanwhile, correctly described the government’s “injection of cash” as being “too little, too late”.
In fact, the Tories’ shoulder-shrugging response isn’t surprising. Real-terms state subsidies for the culture industry have been cut decade-on-decade from the 1980s, under successive right-wing governments. There were thousands of theatre closures even before the pandemic.
The arts are only of interest to the capitalists insofar as they can be exploited for profit. As the saying goes, they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is no use begging the Tories for charity. Only a planned economy can guarantee the arts for future generations by investing in and cherishing culture, rather than cutting it loose to protect profits.
Carmarthenshire theatres workers sacked overnight – organise a fightback!
Socialist Appeal Carmarthenshire
Twenty-two theatre workers in Carmarthenshire, Wales, have been served notices of dismissal without warning by their employer, the outsourcer Randstad agency. This sacking threatens to deprive these workers of any pay or even furlough income.
The theatre workers are organised within the GMB. The wider labour movement must support these workers – and all workers facing redundancy – in the fight for their jobs.
Passing on cuts
The theatre workers had been employed on “poor hours and low pay”, and were not entitled to the same benefits, pensions, or sick pay as their colleagues employed directly by Carmarthenshire County Council.
This demonstrates the direct consequences of outsourcing public jobs and services to private companies.
Despite being in contact with Randstad, the Plaid Cymru-led council has so far been sitting on its hands. It is unlikely that it will intervene simply by virtue of good will. The council has a track record of shrugging its shoulders over cuts and attacks on jobs and services.
Earlier in March, the Carmarthenshire County Council passed through Tory cuts from Westminster without any resistance. Councillors voted for £16.5 million of cuts over the next three years.
The only real choice the workers have is to organise themselves and fight against these redundancies. It is the duty of all socialists and trade union activists to offer full solidarity.
There have been many recent examples of workers fighting back that we can take inspiration from.
For instance, earlier this year there was the victory of the Bromley library strike, where workers won after a year of struggle. Elsewhere recently, Tower Hamlets council workers have also taken strike action, against attacks on their working conditions.
These are key examples of public service workers fighting back and winning. This provides a valuable lesson for the fight unfolding in Carmarthenshire.
Socialist Appeal interviewed three of the Carmarthenshire theatre workers, who told us about the urgency of this situation.
“Having been employed at the theatre for nearly three years in a job I love, it was a disappointing result when we quickly got told we are no longer being paid – due to us being a contingent worker with Randstad – and not furloughed.
“We were meant to have had council contracts by now. But due to delays in the restructure, this hasn't happened. I strongly feel that the restructure should be set ready for our return to work, in order to secure mine and other hard-working, loyal members of staff of Carmarthenshire theatres.”
“I have worked for Carmarthenshire theatres through an agency for over five years. I have given loyal service. And one unexpected phone call took all that away. Yes, just one phone call!
“I'm so very disappointed and gutted, to tell you the truth. It's not only me, but 22 or more agency staff who have lost jobs that are there. Due to the delayed and ongoing restructuring in the theatre, we have lost job opportunities.
“I have not even been told whether, when the theatres eventually open, I will be considered for any of jobs, after all the experience I have gained and commitment I have given during those years.”
“I feel as though this situation is completely unfair to myself and all of my colleagues, some who have been employed for several years. We haven’t had the option to be furloughed, despite that being what we wanted. It’s been a horrible situation.”
The workers should not be made to pay for a crisis that they did not create.
Randstad is one of the biggest recruitment agencies in the world, with a total revenue of €23.82 billion per year. CEO Jacques Van Den Broek is on an astonishing annual salary of over $3 million.
It is safe to assume that neither Van Den Broek nor anyone else on the executive board will take a pay cut or face redundancies. That burden is passed down to theatre workers in Llanelli, Carmarthen and Ammanford.
But the workers are organising and fighting back. Carmarthenshire theatres workers are represented by the GMB union, which is preparing to challenge the sackings. Socialist Appeal supporters spoke to union rep Sarah Herbert, who told us more about the situation.
Socialist Appeal: What happened that day when the workers were given their notice of dismissal by the Randstad agency?
SH: Well, I was helping a member to get back on the redeployment list, because it was not explained to him correctly. Anyways, he messaged me back and said he had an email back from Randstad and the contract with Carmarthenshire theatres had ended. I was just about to email Randstad myself to find out what it meant when I got calls from members to say they had been laid off; that the contract had been terminated between Randstad and Carmarthenshire County Council.
Socialist Appeal: Randstad is a prime example of a council service that has been outsourced to a private company. What has been their track record, even before the pandemic?
SH: Randstad’s track record over the years has been good to be honest. I think that's why it was more of a shock.
Socialist Appeal: What is the mood of the theatre workers at the moment?
SH: They are devastated. Sme of them have worked for many years. One has been there for 16 years, which is a fantastic commitment to any workplace.
A lot are GMB members. I am in regular contact with them. And of course they are worried for their future. How are they going to pay their mortgage? When will they find a job? The country is still in lockdown; businesses are finding it difficult to keep their own staff, so are not looking to recruit.
They love the theatre life so much. The job is fun: we get to meet great audiences, and get paid to be involved with some amazing shows.
Socialist Appeal: Has there been any action from Carmarthenshire County Council?
SH: At the moment the council hasn't spoken to any agency workers. They do have regular meetings with GMB and the trade unions. GMB are fantastic at feeding back to their members – good or bad.
This is a tough question, because they are not their employees. But then again, without these members, the theatre cannot run the front of house or cafe, or provide cover for the box office.
The council and Randstad have a contract though. And I do believe both are responsible for the duty of care of our workers, regardless. We have invited the head of the council and somebody from Randstad to a Zoom meeting.
Socialist Appeal: The workers were only given a week’s notice. What is the GMB planning to do to oppose this? Are there any talks with the management? And if so, what is the latest update?
SH: Initially the members were told the day before the last day of furlough. So we asked all members to write to Randstad to request to be furloughed. They were told around 4.30pm that it was unfortunately a No.
We have already written to all local councillors, issued a press release, and produced a social media video. The unions are asking that these workers are brought in-house. We are in the process of a petition which we can share far and wide.
Socialist Appeal: Would the GMB be looking to ballot its members for industrial action?
SH: This is a possibility. However, this will be after we have gone down all possible avenues. We want to work with both Randstad and Carmarthenshire County Council to find a solution for our members.
Socialist Appeal fully supports the fightback. All jobs must be saved, with no pay cut for workers. If the bosses claim there is no money for this, then open the books!
The money is clearly there, but is being siphoned out to line the pockets of these parasitic outsourcing bosses. It is about time the workers – the real wealth creators – had a say over this. This is why Labour and the trade unions must fight for all outsourcing and privatisation to be reversed, with services brought back in-house.
It is crucial that the rest of the labour movement support this. If the fightback is successful, it will provide a shining example to other workers facing similar difficulties. When we flex our muscles as a class, the profit-hungry bosses will not be able to stop us.