European Capital of Culture Tartu museum workers underpaid, ready to strike

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Tartu City Museum.
Tartu City Museum. Source: Press materials

As Tartu gears up to become 2024 European Capital of Culture, discontent amongst those working in some of the city's cultural institutions has reached breaking point. With talks of a strike in the air, ERR News tried to find out how it has come to this, and what the impact might be on cultural life in the city.

Walking through Tartu, it's hard not to notice that preparations for 2024 are in full-swing. A big, red, metal "#Tartu2024" sign has been sat in the central Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats) for several years now. Subject of countless selfies and Instagram posts, it's just one of the many reminders that the time for Estonia's "city of good thoughts" to take its turn as European Capital of Culture is edging ever closer.

But under the surface, trouble is brewing. At the end of October, employees from four of Tartu's city-owned cultural institutions threatened to go on strike. Their main message is simple – if their salaries are not brought in line with those of their state-run counterparts, they will be left with no other choice.

As things stand, those working at Tartu's state-owned cultural institutions, such as the Estonian National Museum (ERM) and the Tartu Art Museum (Tartmus), are paid more than those who do "essentially the same jobs," at city-run organizations like the Tartu City Museum and the City Library, explains Ants Siim.

Siim is the staff trustee at the Tartu City Museum, and is now playing a leading role in the push for equal pay. "It's like we have two classes of cultural workers," he tells ERR News, adding that, as the effects of inflation start to bite and with monthly wages of just over €1,000, employees of city-run institutions are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

"Is that what this cultural capital is all about?" he asks. "It seems very bad and wrong for this kind of thing to be happening in the cultural capital of Europe."

Cultural capital

It certainly seems surprising in light of developments on a national level. In a written statement, Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE) told ERR News, that her top priority when negotiating the latest state budget was to ensure the livelihoods and security of people working in the cultural sector.

Hartman said that cultural workers who have higher education working in state-owned institutions will see their minimum salaries rise by 14.3 percent from €1,400 to €1,600 per month from 2023. However, as Tartu Deputy Mayor Lemmit Kaplinski (SDE) points out, while this move is a welcome step forward for cultural workers in state institutions, the same rules do not apply for those employed by the city of Tartu.

"This in and of itself is a very welcome principle, but it can be hugely misleading," Kaplinski tells ERR News, as it "only applies to a certain group of workers in certain organizations."

"I can only assume that most cultural organizations in Estonia are not state-owned, and most services are provided either on the local level or via private initiatives," he says, adding that, as a result, state financing does not reach those employed by the city and "this causes a lot of confusion and resentment."

Minister of Culture Hartman seems to agree that more needs to be done on a local level to ensure Tartu's cultural workers are "also valued and paid decently," as well as being "guaranteed a sense of security." In the same statement, she wrote that, "it is important local decision-makers are aware – culture is not an expense, but an investment."

Internal flame

So, what is happening on the local level? Ädu Neemre, trade union representative of the Oskar Luts City Library, believes the problem is a political one. The local government "prefers concrete over people," she tells ERR News. "Reform (the leading faction in the Tartu City Council – ed.) have said, that it's important for them to build kindergartens and roads so their voters see what they can do. But, when it comes to culture, what can they show them?" she asks.

Tartu Deputy Mayor Kaplinski (SDE) however, whose areas of responsibility include culture and education, describes those working in the cultural sphere as "the salt of the  earth." "These are the people safeguarding our national identity," he told ERR News. "Buildings are nothing without the creative spirit of the people working there."

Kaplinksi's sentiments were echoed by Risto Lehiste, director of the Tartu City Museum. As an employee of the city, who also feels a responsibility to support his staff, Lehiste admits that he's in a bit of a tricky position when it comes to a potential strike. Nevertheless, he has no doubt about the qualities of those he works with. "These are very professional people," he says, adding, that considering the amount they earn, "the only reason why they are still working (in these institutions) is that they are deeply in love with our cultural heritage and culture in general."

But, as Deputy Mayor Kaplinski puts it, the passion these people have for preserving Estonian heritage "is an internal flame," that will soon start to fade if decent salaries cannot be provided to help keep it burning inside them.

Culture clash

"How has it come to this?" ERR News asks Tartu City Museum staff trustee Ants Siim, "and why now?" After all, Minister of Culture Piret Hartman even went as far as describing culture as "the reason for our existence," when asked to comment on the potential strike.

"Well, we've been quite quiet and polite up to now," Siim says. "It has actually been possible for us to go on strike (over this) for around five years," he adds, pointing out that the local government had also failed to agree to their requests for a wage increase following a letter sent as recently as this June.

"Maybe they think cultural workers are like grey mice, who don't want to create any problems. But, now we have reached our limit," he says. "A lot of people feel like they have nothing to lose."

Siim tells ERR News, that the plan is to hold a demonstration on December 5 at 4 p.m. in Tartu's Town Hall Square, next to that big, red, metal "#Tartu 2024" sign. Partly because of the symbolism of Tartu 2024, Siim says, but also for practical reasons – there isn't enough room in front of the city government building to hold a protest due to the festive ice rink, which is there at the moment, he says.

"If things don't change, in 2023 we will have some small 'alarm' strikes, each lasting about one hour," Siim continues. "We will let (the local government) know about our plans, we are not hiding them." "And if that doesn't work?" asks ERR News. "Then we are planning to go on a general strike, a big strike at the beginning of the cultural capital year."

Arts of Survival

If it does come to that, there could be much more at stake than some minor inconvenience for those who want to see the latest exhibition at one of the city-owned museums.

After all, as Kati Ilves, artistic director of the "Tartu 2024 European Capital of Culture," tells ERR News, "Arts of Survival," the core concept underscoring the entire cultural capital project, appears to have "gained yet another meaning due to this situation." "Culture has to be prioritized," Ilves says, "It isn't something that just pops up and organizes itself."

Ilves did add however, that although she believes a positive outcome will be achieved following discussions between the city and its cultural workers, as a foundation, Tartu 2024 European Capital of Culture would not be joining the strike. "We are working together towards the title year with the city of Tartu as well as with most of the institutions in Tartu," she said, emphasizing that it would be crucial for all those involved to discuss better strategies and terms together.

Lemmit Kaplinski on the other hand, went even further than Ilves in highlighting the potential impact. "These are the people safeguarding our national identity," he says, adding that, without them, Estonia "will inevitably lose a piece of the intangible set of values that makes us who we truly are." A strike would underscore the need for "a more thorough discussion about the place of culture in our lives and the resources we provide as a society for cultural activities," he added.

"Some people think that we are only negotiating for ourselves," he says. "But, what we want, is for cultural workers employed by the city to be paid at the level of the national minimum wage. We want this to be the baseline for (salary) calculations, so everyone's salaries would then be calculated in proportion."

"I like to say that it's like a tree with branches," says Siim, breaking into a smile. "If you lift it up, then all the branches come (up) together. But, the way things have been done now and over the last few years, where they give a little bit here, then, maybe a little bit there, is very chaotic and also creates tensions inside our institutions."

That metaphor leads to Siim describing some of the ideas being floated around for that protest in Town Hall Square on December 5. While ERR News promises not to give away any major spoilers, Siim does mention that the demonstration will involve a tree. "We are inviting all the members of the city government to come along, including the mayor," he says. "You should come too. And don't forget to bring your camera."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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