Picturehouse, and their owners Cineworld, must’ve thought they’d dodged a bullet when their staff pay dispute was settled two years ago… but the workers were just reloading. On Saturday (24 September) workers at the Ritzy in Brixton returned to strike action, demanding the London Living Wage, company sick pay for all, company maternity, paternity and adoption pay as well as fair differentials between job roles. Arjun Mahadevan visited their picket line and spoke to the striking workers.
The battle for a decent wage has been going on for years at the Ritzy. In 2007, before Cineworld bought out Picturehouse, workers were on strike trying to get off the minimum wage and off the poverty line, leading to a partial victory which saw them gain a good pay rise, but not enough to bring them up to a living wage. 7 years later, and after the multi-million pound takeover, workers decided it was time to fight for the London Living Wage (LLW). After a dispute that lasted for five months, of which 13 days they were on strike, a settlement was reached where workers would be given a staggered set of pay rises amounting to 26% over the course of 18 months, with the agreement to reopen negotiations around LLW. Workers are currently on £8.77/h which is due to increase to £9.10/h next month. This falls short of LLW, which currently stands at £9.40, but is soon to be recalculated.
In June this year, BECTU reps from the Ritzy met with Picturehouse and Cineworld management to reopen negotiations. I spoke to Mark, one of the reps:
We asked what they thought of these five points – it was around the Living Wage, maternity, paternity and sick pay, as well as decent differentials for managers and supervisors, and they basically closed the door and said “We’re not negotiating”.
Now two years after the end of the last dispute, Ritzy workers are out on strike again, but the situation is very different than it was in 2014. Mark continues:
Two years ago most people you’d speak to would say “What’s the Living Wage?” whereas now, off the back of that first strike, it’s a bit more of a household name and people are familiar with it, and I think largely a lot of people are on board with it
The vibrant picket lines, the creative and original campaign and the celebrity support had captured peoples’ interest last time round. The dispute was picked up in the mainstream media, with the Observer even featuring it on their front page.
Another difference for the Ritzy in 2016 is that the campaign has spread to other cinemas in the Picturehouse franchise, with workers at Hackney Picturehouse currently balloting for strike action. I spoke to Agata, a front of house worker who was involved in the 2014 dispute:
I’m kind of shocked that they would go to the lengths they’re going to not to pay us, but I’m really happy that other cinemas might actually join us, I think that’s a massive improvement. That’s an amazing change, because other sites might get recognition and more people are voting to strike. I don’t think Hackney would be now balloting to strike if we didn’t strike two years ago, so it was worth it.
It’s not just Hackney who are getting involved. I spoke to two BECTU members from Picturehouse Central in Piccadilly who’d come down to support the Ritzy picket:
I think because the Ritzy was a huge campaign it’s encouraged us. One of our union reps has meetings regularly with one of the Ritzy reps and they come here and talk to the workers at Central, so we know what each other wants and how we can work together. Our demands would be the same – living wage, maternity pay, sick pay. We don’t want anything special; we just want the same.
It seems that a unified campaign involving workers from more Picturehouse cinemas will be key to achieving their goals, and striking will be a big part of that. As Mark says:
They can close the Ritzy and they can make threats of actually closing the Ritzy, but they can’t close all the Picturehouses, then what have they got?
In addition to other Picturehouse cinemas getting involved, there has been a much wider movement of workers in low-paid jobs campaigning for LLW across various sectors, from Deliveroo drivers to HMRC cleaners. The fight for decent pay is so important, and especially in a city with an ever increasing cost of living. Big businesses such as Picturehouse and Cineworld turnover huge profits at the expense of their workers, but as we saw with customers revoking their Ritzy memberships in their hundreds two years ago, it’s the staff that make these businesses successful, not company (mis)management. Agata talks about the importance of the campaign spreading beyond Picturehouse:
I think the main thing is that people don’t know their rights, so if people walk past our picket line and they start questioning what’s happening in their own workplaces, I think that’s an achievement. It’s also about raising awareness. I don’t think we’d ever do it just for the sake of 30p more. We all have other things to do than stand around Windrush Square all day, but we know it’s important and not only about us.