Royal Society of Arts staff vote to unionise by overwhelming majority

<span>Photograph: Jon Rosenthal/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jon Rosenthal/Alamy

Staff at the Royal Society of the Arts have overwhelmingly voted for union representation in a bitter blow to the senior management team, who vigorously opposed a six-month-long grassroots campaign.

Almost 86% of the votes cast in a ballot of RSA staff organised by the Central Arbitration Committee, a government tribunal, which handles union recognition disputes, were in favour of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) negotiating over pay, holidays and hours.

The vote comes after the senior management team led by Andy Haldane, a former chief economist at the Bank of England and current government levelling up adviser, rebuffed three requests to voluntarily recognise the union over the last six months. The RSA claimed in papers submitted to the tribunal that the IWGB was not “a fit and proper organisation for collective bargaining”, stating it had concerns about “its transparency, professionalism, competence and the legality of some of its actions”.

Only 11 of the 77 votes cast were against unionisation, with 13 members of staff in the bargaining unit, which excludes senior managers and human resources, not voting.

One union member said the vote demonstrated the strength of feeling in the charity, which once counted Karl Marx and Nelson Mandela as fellows. “It’s been a long journey and we’ve had to overcome pernicious tactics from management. They portrayed us as a disruptive, negative force but we’ve just stressed the benefits of unionisation,” he said. “We were all emailed a long diatribe from Haldane, covering five sides of A4, before the vote. It was a character assassination of the union. But none of it rang true with staff. In fact, it reinforced the need for a union.”

Yet the RSA awarded the IWGB an award for unionising workers in the gig economy three years ago, commending the union for “placing decision-making power directly in the hands of workers”. It has also published research recommending stronger unions and Haldane has blamed low-wage growth on the decline of unions. A key figure in the unionisation drive at the charity, Ruth Hannah, had her employment terminated almost a week early after she publicly accused the RSA’s management of being hypocritical.

Related: ‘Not living our values’: Royal Society of Arts accused of hypocrisy on staff union

The union now wants to push for a wider recognition deal, so it can renegotiate how to make the RSA a more diverse organisation and for a more transparent pay structure. It also wants to negotiate a cost of living increase for staff, who had real terms pay cuts over the past three years, with the IWGB claiming some staff members have had to resign because they cannot afford rising rents in London. “We’ve seen staff struggling with the cost of living crisis, and no real support coming from the RSA,” claimed a union member.

The IWGB claimed the RSA had attempted to undermine the wishes of the majority of workers during the unionisation campaign. “We have seen tactics used that you would expect at a multinational corporation, not a charity; however, we look forward to moving forwards and negotiating with management on a broad range of issues that matter to staff,” said Alex Marshall, the IWGB president.

The campaign has attracted widespread support. Over 250 RSA fellows, including human rights barrister Adam Wagner and LSE anthropologist Jason Hickel, signed an open letter calling on the RSA to reach a voluntary agreement with the union.

The RSA said it would work with the IWGB to ensure appropriate mechanisms are put in place for effective collective bargaining after the vote. “We work with an exceptional group of people at the RSA who care passionately about our work, reputation and heritage and we anticipate that everyone will now move forward positively together,” it said in a statement.