A socialist who works at the Ritzy Picturehouse cinema in Brixton, South London spoke to Solidarity about the Ritzy workers' Living Wage struggle (in a personal capacity).
What's the nature of the workforce at the Ritzy?
Almost everyone is part-time; a lot have other jobs or projects they're working on. Some people have been there as long as 15 years, and then it's a huge range downwards. A lot of us haven't been there very long: me less than a year. But compared to many workplaces the Ritzy is an okay place to work, so people tend to stay.
We're mostly young. There are people from loads of different countries, mainly in Europe. The workforce is gender balanced and it's the only place I've worked where I've not experienced sexism. A lot of the managers are women.
The bulk of the workforce - front of house, bar workers, projectionists and office staff - are solidly organised. The people we don't have are outsourced workers, mainly security and the workers on the phone lines. They don't have union recognition. I guess this is something we need to think about and work on. There are some managers who are sympathetic to the workers, but they're not the ones making decisions - or I should say implementing decisions. These are people who if we had democracy at work could do a decent job in cooperation with the workforce, but obviously that is not how things work under this system.
By the way, when the Living Wage dispute began, management suspended recruitment, but they've now started hiring again.
How has the Living Wage struggle developed?
When I started working at the Ritzy the dispute had already begun, but we hadn't been on strike. Last year and early this year there were repeated meetings between the company, BECTU [the broadcasting and entertainment union] officials and our reps, and various so-called compromise proposals were floated. What's good is that there were frequent report backs and discussions at membership meetings, with the workers taking decisions.
The offers involved different permutations of performance-related pay. We oppose this for a number of reasons. One is that, even with these schemes, we wouldn't have come all the way up to £8.80 an hour. In any case, as a basic minimum, we want the full Living Wage as a right - for ourselves and beyond that for all Picturehouse workers. We already work incredibly hard - there's no reason we should have to 'give anything back' to get a living wage. Also, the performance schemes involve ridiculous assessments of how hard we're pushing various offers onto customers. I don't think it's good for customers when we are constantly pushing more stuff and the most expensive options. It reminds me of when I worked at WH Smith and we had to irritate everyone by offering them a discount bar of chocolate.
That's capitalism, isn't it? It's not what's best for workers or customers but what's best for making a profit.
Eventually it became obvious the negotiations were in an impasse, and we moved to strike action. We've had six strike days since April, plus days when we didn't strike but organised protests. The strikes have been solid and effective, closing the cinema each time, with well-attended, lively picket lines.
Since the strikes began, management have cut off negotiations. They also refused to give us the pay rise other Picturehouses have had - 29p an hour, which is about 4 percent. Last week, we were supposed to have negotiations, but they cancelled them at the last minute and imposed the pay rise, if you see what I mean. But it didn't weaken us: it feels like they're in disarray and also the rush of back pay means workers feel more confident to carry on. It's nice to see management tripping over their feet!
Is this your first strike? What has it been like?
Yeah, this is my first strike. It's my first experience of workplace organisation. My mum's a teacher and has been on strike lots of times, and obviously I know all about exploitation from my previous jobs - mostly in shops. As a socialist, I pieced it together, and in fact my dissertation was about exploitation and inequality at work. But until I had the experience of getting organised, it was all a bit abstract.
I'm aware how lucky I am, in a way. How many lefties of my generation have been able to take part in a vibrant working-class struggle? Even most young workers in established organised sectors like public services don't have that experience.
The main thing that has struck me is the strength and depth of the relationships built between Ritzy workers during the dispute. It's far more intense than the ordinary experience of just working together. And also the unleashing of people's passion and creativity when they try to gain some control in their workplace. Up and down the country there are people bitching at watercoolers, but they don't see how it's political or imagine they could do anything to change things. When you get organised, it's different.
I was lucky but there's nothing special about the Ritzy. Everyone needs to think about how they can begin to organise at work.
Has it been a politicising experience?
This has confirmed my convictions, strengthened them and made them far more concrete.
I think working-class politics starts with the relationship between workers and management. If you can organise and make demands on management, why not the government? After all, we are the majority and we produce the wealth that makes society run. And workers' organisation, when it's strong, gives a workable model of how democracy could be made far more real than it is under capitalism.
There's another thing I think is interesting, which is the idea that you can - you should - have a decent and fulfilling life regardless of what you do. We're constantly encouraged to think we're going to strike it rich in the future, or at least that we're going to move on to something better. And that works very well for capitalism, obviously, because it prevents people from organising collectively for more and better where they are right now. I recently told someone I just worked in a bar, and he told me - don't say that, there's nothing wrong with working in a bar. Be proud. He was absolutely right. Getting organised at work is a big part of that.
If all workers were organised, then far more people would be politically engaged, and engaged in the direction of left-wing politics.
A few of the older workers were involved in a previous attempt to unionise the Ritzy and improve our wages, but the big majority of us have never been involved in a workers' struggle before. So most people aren't necessarily starting from a political place but of course the dispute has been politicising. Having a goal like the Living Wage means that there's a much easier starting place for thinking about politics.
Workers have got used to socialist groups visiting our picket lines, and are interested, though the heavy sell we get from the SWP is quite alienating.
What problems has the Ritzy struggle encountered?
I think the main one is stamina, keeping people going. Although it's been a wonderful experience, it hasn't been easy. This was my first workplace with a union, but before the dispute it was the first time I didn't feel like I needed one. Now that's changed. Management have us under pressure, and it's tough. We're doing well at supporting each and looking after ourselves while keeping the momentum. One thing that helps is the knowledge that this isn't just about us. It's part of a wider struggle for all Picturehouse workers and in fact all low paid workers.
How have you found BECTU?
Really good. It seems to me that Ritzy workers have been steering our own struggle, and we've got support rather than obstruction from our full time officials. I know there are horror stories in some other unions, but we've not had anything like that. I don't know if this is because BECTU's size makes grassroots control easier or what.
There seem to be the first shoots of progress in terms of spreading the union to other Picturehouses. We've made links at other cinemas in London and at at least one other Picturehouse in the north. Whenever we go to another cinema, we strengthen our links. Protests and leafleting by supporters must help too.
What do you think it will take to win?
I sometimes think it's a bit of a mystery why management haven't caved yet - surely they could save themselves money and trouble by giving in to what is actually a very modest demand. But I suppose they are afraid of us setting a 'bad example' to other Picturehouse workers and they want to hold the line against the union and the threat of unionisation. After all, they have a lot of profits to lose!
The sale of the Picturehouse chain to Cineworld shows the attitude of the people running it - they trade on the artsy, even pseudo-ethical Picturehouse brand, but what they're all about is money. Cineworld will be harder to crack, because it's bigger and more corporate, but we can do it. We need to keep the action going, get more solidarity and stay determined. We've also decided call for a boycott of Picturehouses, so actions outside the cinemas can help spread that.
We've had very positive coverage in the Evening Standard and we're even using Boris Johnson's support for the Living Wage to embarrass our bosses.
More importantly, we've had great support from customers, from the community in Brixton and from other unions, particularly in Lambeth. The links with UCU and Unison at Lambeth College and the council have been particularly important: the Lambeth College dispute has had a real impact on Ritzy workers. The more solidarity we get and the more we give the more confident we'll be. So please invite a speaker, spread the word and help us win.