Kelly Rogers is one of the four sacked union reps at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton. She is also a supporter of Workers’ Liberty. She spoke to us about the Picturehouse workers’ long-running dispute.
It’s become quite fashionable to ask whether we need new forms of trade unionism, and new tactics to attract different kinds of workers. Obviously there are obstacles and risks particular groups of workers face, but the way we’ve organised people in Picturehouse isn’t through any new-fangled strategy but basic organisational techniques that have been used for generations. We’ve gone into cinemas and talked to people in the foyer or across the bar, gone back, made our case, answered questions, organised meetings and just persuaded people to get involved. It’s basic trade unionism.
We are debunking the widespread idea that precarious, low paid, young, migrant workers are impossible to organise. In my experience the reality is the opposite: workers like us are keen to address our evident exploitation, low pay, poor conditions when we’re given the chance.
It's been challenging because the dispute that has grown fast, sometimes people go from their first conversation about the union to striking in less than two months. Getting people organised and active to fight on pay and conditions is hard, but but we're are also learning the limitations of the unions as they are, how we can challenge that and win more from our unions. Giving new activists a crash course in a matter of weeks is daunting.
Beyond that, one of the strengths of this dispute has been the swathes of people from the organised left who’ve supported us, Workers’ Liberty comrades of course but also lots of people in the Labour Party, in Momentum groups and other left organisations who’ve provided invaluable support. For many months at the start I’m not sure how many Picturehouse workers necessarily understood who these people were, what their motivations were and so on. Having a clear understanding of the nature of the wider issues in the strike is important, introducing socialist politics is necessary, but again it has sometimes felt daunting, more perhaps than it needed to be.
Do you think workers’ view of politics changed?
I’m trying to talk to more people about the wider political framework around them, and be clear about what my politics are and the way I organise with Workers' Liberty and other organisations. It’s got easier recently with things like the community pickets of cinemas local supporters have set up and with the surge of money into the strike fund – obviously both those things are being driven not just by random people who’ve sprung out of the ground but mainly by organised trade unionists and socialists who do things for political reasons. That’s a good thing and it’s important for people to grasp.
Quite a few Picturehouse workers have been seriously discussing politics, many have been radicalised and politicised by the dispute. The strike has been happening alongside the Labour leadership contests, Brexit, the rise of Trump, the general election. Being involved in the a union and in a workplace struggle has magnified people’s engagement with these wider political issues and events. I’m quite confident that out of this dispute we’ll have not onlysome excellent union activists, but also political activists, some of whom will consider themselves revolutionary socialists.
Are you pleased about the level of outside support?
Yes, it’s extremely heart-warming and inspiring to see people giving up huge amounts of time and energy to support us, standing outside cinemas, raising it in the labour movement, getting motions to their Labour branches, organising fundraisers... An astonishing amount of work has been done by outside supporters of the dispute, a lot of which goes unacknowledged and we are incredibly grateful.
The support we′ve had has been fantastic, but there is still a lot the wider labour movement could do to help. Part of the issue is that our union Bectu hasn’t really beaten the drums at a national level. In so far as that’s been done it’s been done by the left. The level of support around the country has really stepped up since me and three of my colleagues were sacked and the campaign has escalated since the day of action on 29 July, but again that has been organised from below.Could more have been done earlier with official, national-level support and promotion?
What has the dispute suggested about the state of the unions?
Early on, in particular, Bectu allowed us to run the dispute and organise it ourselves: we were given a lot of freedom to organise our own strikes, to plan our strike days, to make them colourful and carnivalesque. But we’ve also seen the tendency unions have to be (small c) conservative. There’s a tendency for officials to oppose militant strategies that could grow and win campaigns. I think they’re worried about this getting too big, too noisy, too costly. I also think there’s a distrust of social movement-type unionism, working with political activists, the Labour Party, campaigns, even other unions. There’s a worry about things getting out of official control.
Bectu feels under a lot of pressure from anti-union legislation and reflects that back onto us. The new Trade Union Act has been quite pivotal in our dispute, when it came in we immediately felt pressure from our leadership not just to comply with the legislation but to go above and beyond it. The law is extremely restrictive, so if you want to fight effectively there has to be at least some element of not allowing yourself to be restricted more than absolutely necessary. The unions should be seeking to stretch these laws and ultimately overturn them, and educate and agitate among the membership to oppose them rather than taking them as something immutable.
Of course management will use anything they can to undermine our struggles, of course we need to be disciplined and careful, but I fear we are being whipped into irrational fear of the law, and of company disciplinaries, and everything else. Unions should be working to make their members feel confident, not panicky and scared.
What do you think revolutionary socialist politics brings to workers in a struggle like yours?
Being in a revolutionary socialist organisation has been central to me thinking about how I should go about organising this dispute, what we should look for from the strike, what will allow us to win. More generally though it imbues people with a political perspective that allows you to understand the mechanics of what’s happening around you. Why are we being exploited by our employer? Why are we paid so little? It’s so common for people to believe that low wages are just the way things are or even that it’s justified because we’re in a supposed “unskilled” job. Equipping people with a class analysis of society illuminates the dynamics of exploitation. That’s empowering, and it helps us to understand what solutions are possible.
Having that perspective can allow us to break out of the limitations trade unionism is stuck in, where it’s about you, your job, at best maybe you and your colleagues, which is important but that’s where it stops, if it gets there at all. It’s fairly obvious that the reality of workers’ lives isn’t just shaped by pay or breaks or pensions but is shaped by inequality in every aspect of society, whether it’s your being able to pay your rent or worrying about your immigration status – both things that concern many of my colleagues! Understanding that our campaigns can be part of a wider political project, a class project, to make people’s lives better more generally and free us from exploitation, is empowering as well as suggesting particular strategies and solutions in the struggle.
Kelly, holding the "I support the Picturehouse strike" sign