In the past few months the strikes at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton and the growing campaign at Curzon cinema for the Living Wage have been an inspiration for those questioning how we can start to organise young workers or those on zero-hour contracts.
Estelle Cooch sat down with Ritzy branch secretary Nia, Ritzy worker Roisin, and Adam and Jessica, BECTU members at Curzon’s Soho cinema to discuss how they built the union and their campaign. This is an extended version of the interview that appeared in rs21’s magazine. Subscriptions available here.
TIP 1 – Seek advice
The first step in building the union is, of course, joining it yourself. For Roisin at the Ritzy this was “a no brainer. The union is a long standing thing here so it’s part of the culture,” she said. “My first tip if you’re on your own would be to seek advice. The reps and officials have a wealth of knowledge that you can tap into and then you can start sharing it with other workers who may not have thought to join the union. We’re desperate to help other Picturehouse cinemas to organise.”
Branch secretary Nia, agreed, “You need to know everyone in your workplace and their background, then you need to seek out the gobby shites like me! Then make sure you sit them next to someone calm in meetings! Seriously though, if there’s only a couple of you in your workplace find ways to bring up issues that might be important.
At Curzon the union was only recognised in January. Adam explained how everything started to snowball, “When one of the staff members spoke out about joining the union, it slowly went around by word of mouth and emails. After a few weeks, 80 percent of the staff joined. We also have friends working in other cinema branches across London.
Sometimes when cinemas are short staffed we get to work elsewhere. When we’re there we meet other staff members, we keep in touch and slowly build up a list of contacts. My other tip, particularly, in small workplaces, would be to acquaint yourself with the hierarchy. Work out who is on your side and who can be trusted. Work out how the CEO distributes your wages and how much profit they get. From there contact other unionised places for advice and try to get union recognition.”
TIP 2 – Involve as many people as possible
Unionising at the Ritzy began when it was owned by City Screen in 2007. City Screen and Cineworld then merged in 2012 in a deal worth £47.3 million. After that merger the workers first went on strike calling for better pay that actually reflected the cost of living in London. This resulted in two strike days and in 2010 they reached a three-year pay deal with Ritzy. But this required serious union building a lot of hard work.
For Nia, the branch secretary of BECTU at the Ritzy, getting the right team of reps was part of a conscious strategy to build the union:
“I became the rep last August around the anniversary of our wage increase. At that point we had 30 members of the union. Now we have 80 out of 100 workers which is pretty amazing. To do this – more than double the union membership – we asked members what they wanted to campaign on and I spent a lot of time going back to former reps and asking them how they had built the union. We also set up a strong team of reps which has been really central to how things have succeeded at the Ritzy.
We have five reps – each of them has different skills and personality traits so there is someone that every member at the Ritzy finds approachable. We try to get as many reps as we can.”
But the union isn’t just about economic demands for Nia, “We promote the union by explaining to workers what it is, how it protects their rights but also the fact that we are meant to act together. This has contributed to the growth of a political consciousness at the Ritzy. Politics shouldn’t only be discussed in formal meetings. It has to be an ongoing conversation. We discuss the strike on shifts, at parties, everywhere.”
For Jessica at Curzon where union organisation is still fledgling, speaking to new workers is crucial: “New staff members have no idea of the history we have all been through, so we tell them about it, by word of mouth, BECTU posters, notes on the wall in the staff room, email them articles etc and leave it up to them to decide. It takes time to settle in when you’re just starting out in a new work place so we give them time to take it all in and offer ourselves as and when they need any assistance or advice”
TIP 3- Be as vibrant and engaging as you can!
Many of the cinema workers are young arts graduates or aspiring actors or musicians. This creativity has been one of the most striking parts of the campaigns. As Roisin notes “Social media has been a huge part of the Ritzy campaign. We have focused a lot on our branding, not to make it corporate, but because we wanted to be identifiable. Why should we expect people to engage with what we’re saying if we’re not an engaging campaign?”
We’re really democratic about how we make decisions. We picked the Living Wage as our main campaign after a lot of discussion. We have regular union meetings, probably every couple of weeks outside of the Ritzy. The numbers at these meetings varies from about 20-45, so from a quarter to over half of union membership. At these meetings we discuss the politics of campaign but also how we’re reaching out to new people and how we can get media. When we realised our Saturday strike would mean the usual kids club wouldn’t run, we decided to bring toys, games and face-painting and just move the fun outside into Windrush Square.”
The Ritzy have created a strong visual presence with t-shirts and placards with quotes from films on, whereas at Curzon, where they haven’t yet taken strike action the campaign has focused on clever, headline grabbing stunts – often supported by the comedian Mark Thomas.
Jessica said “My favourite stunt was when Mark changed the letters on the canopy on the Soho cinema. He got up really early in the morning and changed the letters that normally show the film titles, to say “Give us fair pay – Recognise the union”.
TIP 4 – Offer solidarity to other campaigns
At Curzon the campaign has never just been about the Living Wage – it’s also been about the restoration of concessionary tickets. This is one of the reasons Jessica believes it had such resonance with customers: “This sense of urgency to fight back derives simultaneously from both the workers in the cinema and the cinema goers. The ticket prices are constantly going up (and it’s pissing off customers) while the pay for the cinema workers is nowhere near the cost of living in London.”
While both campaigns have supported the SOAS cleaners struggle for the Living Wage, Nia explained how solidarity didn’t just have to be with other industrial struggles. “This will be the first year that we march on Pride on 28 June as Ritzy workers in support of LGBTQ rights. Being in the union gives you a common denominator with lots of other workers and out of that you can end up getting involved in all kinds of different campaigns.” On 1 May, both Lambeth College and the Ritzy workers were on strike. For Roisin this day was inspiring: “We marched down the road in the pouring rain, but it was amazing. In Brixton where the Ritzy is such a focal point of the community making these links are crucial if we’re going to win.”
As the campaigns grow in London the workers are also trying to spread elsewhere. Adam pleaded for other Curzon workers to get in touch:
“We are still trying to get in touch with Curzon staff members outside London in Ripon, Stafford and Knutsford. Any of you Curzon staff reading this in Ripon, Stafford and Knutsford, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on our campaign and how BECTU can help all of us at the Curzon cinemas across the country to get better pay, better working conditions and any other issues at work. It’s totally confidential! Curzon are also expanding in Canterbury, Colchester and Sheffield, so any of you who want to work for Curzon over there, please join BECTU so they can look at your contract (before you sign it) to make sure you are not being exploited. Curzon is trying to get rid of paid breaks so beware Curzoners!”
TIP 5 – Don’t give up!
Asking people to join the union can be a daunting task. Workers might not want to give the money, they may not agree with unions or they may simply not see the point.
If the union does start to grow and people disagree with it this can make workplace relations quite tense and can make it more tempting to give up. As Roisin noticed “It’s very easy to let things slide in the workplace but one of the most important things I’ve learnt is you have to complain if things aren’t right. If you ever need to take industrial action you have to prove there has been a paper trail of you saying “this isn’t right”.
All the cinema workers we spoke to emphasised the importance of taking workplace relations seriously. Nia at the Ritzy advised “If you’re not yet at the stage of setting up reps groups, start by making sure you know everyone in your workplace. Out of a workplace of about 100 there are only 2 or 3 people who I don’t yet know.
It is worth speaking to and talking to everyone, but you have to accept you might not persuade everyone and that is ok too.
We had one case of someone who disagreed with the strike so much that they removed themselves from the union – ultimately that was a good thing. When it comes to union members, however, we have to be firm that we are asking people to withdraw their labour and that has to be a collective thing. The difficult question is when you get members who want to cross the picket line. It can be frustrating because the strike is helping them long term but you have to try to dig deeper, be empathetic and try to work out what is troubling them. On the other hand the most amazing thing has been to see the confidence of some of the more nervous members grow within the struggle.”
All the cinema workers agreed that things seemed to be changing. For Adam , “People aren’t as apathetic as they’re said to be. There’s a sense across the country that people are standing up for themselves and becoming more politically active.”
This sense is particularly acute among young people. For Roisin, straight out of uni, “London is fast becoming a place where graduates can’t live. The Living Wage campaign is also about ensuring London remains a place where all kinds of diverse groups of people can afford to be.”
Nia noted that “After the cuts to the arts and the NHS there has been a rise in political awareness as a result of austerity. We suddenly started to make the connection between the people in government making the cuts and our bosses who were equally austere by not paying us the living wage.” Jessica agreed, “We’re meant to think that these cinemas are nice little indie chains, but behind the scenes they’re owned by very rich people”.
It was these very rich people that helped to radicalise the campaign at the Ritzy. Nia recalled, “When Lyn Goleby, managing director of City Screen gave herself a £15,000 pay rise people were furious. That’s practically a salary for us. On 3rd June we were told we would receive a 29p pay rise – that’s 4 percent. It’s an insult. And so at the Ritzy, we are committed to striking for as long as it takes to get what we deserve”
This is an extended version of an interview that appeared in the first edition of the rs21 magazine. You can buy a copy or subscription online by clicking here.
Follow the cinema workers at @CurzonWorkers and @RitzyLivingWage. Come to the benefit for the Ritzy workers on 12 July – for more info click here. Last, but certainly not least, come to the cinema workers rally on Thursday 17 July and sign the petition here.