Just Stop Oil’s response to the Van Gogh ‘Sunflowers’ action

This is the official response of the Just Stop Oil Trade Unionists Group to the PCS Union Culture Group regarding the Van Gogh ‘Sunflowers’ action.

The PCS Culture Group original statement can be found here

Dear Gareth and the PCS Culture Group Executive Committee,

Thank you for your letter. Thank you for your efforts in distancing yourselves from the dirty, murderous fossil fuel giants by challenging their sponsorship of museums and galleries, and for generally being one of the better trade unions on climate issues in recent years.

“It is not the language of painters but the language of nature one should listen to, the feeling for the things themselves, for reality is more important than the feeling for pictures.” – Vincent Van Gogh.

His words have never rang more true, and whoever disagrees really needs to give their head a good wobble. The capitalist West is obsessed with the monetary value of things over what we should really value. Consider the Mona Lisa test. In a fire, which would you save – the Mona Lisa or an unconscious museum staff member? Are we really so bereft of humanity that we would save the painting? And isn’t it the man who we celebrate, and how his work is symbolic of his life? Isn’t that what his art is?

Sunflowers was never in any danger, but focusing on the “risk” of damage has been hysterically hyped in order to exclude discussion on what is actually important. Your statement, intentionally or not, has further enabled the right-wing media to push a negative rhetoric. To make the following clear:

      • We did not contact you in advance of the action to avoid risk of compromise. Judging by your response, you would have sought to block it. On reflection, however, we recognise we could have delivered a letter to a staff member during the action to calm any nerves. Live and learn.

      • The painting was not damaged and we did not “attack” Van Gogh’s Sunflowers as you claim. Some cold soup was thrown at some glass and was quickly cleaned up with kitchen roll.

      • There was no risk to workers you represent at all.

      • The Suffragettes slashed famous works to highlight the hypocrisy of the British government physically harming real women via force-feeding, physical brutality and imprisonment, while professing to place them on a pedestal of virtue and modesty by ogling them in public in lascivious nude paintings as “great works of art”. So in comparison…

    We are on the brink of total social collapse – 1.5°C of global warming is on the horizon – definitely by 2030 but perhaps as soon as 2024 according to recent papers [1]. This means half of all people living in Africa (700 million) on the move [2]. Match that with already hostile migration policy and it’s a recipe for disaster. It means ever more frequent devastating crop failure, drought, floods and wildfires all over the world. Scenarios even worse than the worst scientific predictions keep coming true. Everything that we have loved, hold dear, have built and created, is on the line – art, music, film, dance, sports, community, culinary culture, architecture, agriculture, technology, public transport, the NHS, an abundance of nature…. all of it. For institutions to be more protective over a painting over all of this is sickening – a wake-up call that hundreds of millions of people are experiencing because of our action.

    You state that “70% of PCS Culture group members strongly disagree with fossil fuel sponsorship in the sector”. We are grateful for this recognition but it’s not enough. Try telling the results of your survey to the 33 million people affected, 7.9 million displaced, 1,700 killed, and 2.1 million left homeless by recent floods in Pakistan [3]; to mothers feeding their children MUD in Madagascar because they haven’t had their usual monsoon season for four years [4]; to the 1,000+ people who died of heat stress in Portugal this Summer [5]; to the 41 UK families whose homes burned down on July 23rd [6]. Try telling Van Gogh. They don’t need our words; they need our action.

    However, this recognition of your membership does provide a platform for action. But we urge you and your membership to consider the history of real meaningful change and the scale of this situation. How do you think we won women’s rights, black civil rights, the rights to weekends, minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay, certain working conditions? How do you think India was freed from imperialism?

    We urge you to use your privileges as UK citizens with democratic rights that Pakistani people could only dream of, attend a talk, do a nonviolence training, and be supported and guided by inspiring, dedicated and passionate people as you tackle your fears and become fearless. Just like the Tolpuddle Martyrs did. Despite all your time in trade unions, you will have never experienced intense comradery like it, and we can vouch for this, because we’re all trade unionists. Our community is beautiful, and for people suffering all over the world, it must expand. It’s time for us all to build the collective courage required to undertake acts that we would only even consider in a time of great emergency. And if you’re afraid about facing disciplinary action at work or the sack, then let’s discuss how unions can protect us. In regards to legal punishments, we urge people to look at decisions judges are making rather than what whoever today’s Home Secretary is saying. Recently, people who sat on the M25 with Insulate Britain were let off with just a £5 slap on the wrist as a judge ruled it a proportionate response to the climate and ecological emergency and fuel poverty crisis [7].

    You represent workers in Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), The Environment Agency, and other key climate and ecological battlegrounds. Workers must be disillusioned with the directions these bodies are taking, so we are keen to discuss how this can translate into action.

    We desperately need environmental and labour forces to intimately collaborate. Yet at TUC Congress last year, the only climate motion tabled was a pathetic pro-gas offering. We need a rapid just transition to secure, well-paid, unionised clean jobs for the masses that can last for centuries, not just the next few years. It is the duty of trade unions to protect their members job security, but this cannot be matched with short-sightedness – just like that of the oligarchs, CEOs, and politicians. It can’t just be about better pay and conditions right now. Unions are doing their members a great disservice by being so reactionary and acting within the limitations of a snail-paced setup stuck in a certain way of working. Meeting once a month and skirting around humanity’s greatest ever threat is a disgrace. Please note this is a criticism of the trade union movement generally, rather than directed at just PCS.

    So yes – we need to work together against the common enemy – it’s too powerful for us not to – but an essential part of solidarity that the left fails to recognise time and time again is the need to challenge each other to do better via peaceful confrontation. Lesbians and Gays didn’t just support the miners – they also seriously confronted their homophobia by being shamelessly queer. They rocked the boat. They shook things up. And oh my, does the left need a good shake when it comes to the shitstorm we’re in with the climate, so let’s tackle this together. We very much look forward to meeting with you.

    Best of luck with your ongoing strike ballot over pay, pensions, jobs and redundancy terms. You deserve better, we’re right behind you, and we’ll see you on the picket lines when you win a “yes” vote.

    In love, solidarity, and comradery,

    Members of Just Stop Oil Trade Unionists Group.

    Eric Anderson, IWW (London)
    Dave Baldwin, NEU (Oxfordshire)
    Rachel Bosler, UCU (University of Essex)
    Jannie Brightman, Unite Community (Cambridge)

    Michelle Cadet-Rose, IWW (Sheffield)

    Haydn Chick, ACORN (Coventry)
    Caroline Clarke, UCU (Open University)
    Shaun Davies (a.k.a. Bruce), Unite Community (Greater Manchester), Manchester People’s Assembly

    Kathy Dolan, Unison (Manchester)

    Chris Edwards, TSSA (Crewe)

    Miranda Forward, Unite (Liverpool)

    Nigel Frost, RMT (London Transport retired branch)
    Steve Gower, Unite Community (Bath, Bristol & Gloucester)
    Molly Griffith-Jones, PCS (York)
    Roger Hallam, Unite Community (Lambeth & Southwark)

    Gareth Harper, GMB (Swansea)

    Susan MacRow-Hill, NASUWT (Devon)

    Patrick McCarthy, Unite Community (Shropshire)

    Alex Merron, ACORN (Bristol/Somerset)
    Richard Morgan, Unite (Bridgwater, Somerset)

    Theresa Norton, Unite (Scarborough)
    Mat Osmond, UCU (Falmouth University)

    Angela Paton, Unite Community (West of Scotland), Unite for A Workers Economy, Kilmarnock & Loudoun Trades Council
    Stephanie Pride, BFAWU (Scarborough)
    Kathryn Radley, NEU (Essex)

    Tina Smith, Community (Woodbridge, Suffolk)
    Karen Wilding, Unite Community (Leicester)