Battling hostile management, Ritzy workers inspire low-paid workers across the UK

At least some young workers are starting to realise that they won’t get paid what they're entitled to without a fight.

At least some young workers are starting to realise that they won’t get paid what they’re entitled to without a fight

The days of company lock-outs and barricades against striking staff are said to be over. But if one art-house cinema chain in London has anything to do with it, worker-management hostility may be making a return.

Workers at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton have been taking strike action over the past few months to fight for a Living Wage in what is now one of the most expensive cities to live in in the world.

But bosses at the Picturehouse chain, now owned by the mega-corporation Cineworld, have been increasingly resorting to extreme tactics to undermine the strike.

Last Wednesday, workers took action again, but for the first time the cinema tried to stay open. How did they do it? By erecting huge steel barriers to ferry customers in through positive and peaceful picket lines.

Staff at the Ritzy have been unionised through media union BECTU for around seven years. But recently, with the spiralling cost of living in the capital, they have become committed to winning a decent wage within a company that charges more for a large glass of wine than what the workers get in an hour.

And popular support has been incredible. As union rep Marc Cowan writes for Union Solidarity International:

“The demonstrations have been reported by the media as being more like the atmosphere of a carnival than anything that requires security. Music, dancing, laughter, talking with the community of all ages and cultures. By the end of the evening, despite the rain, we were sharing jaffa cakes with the police and cleaning up litter.”

Not something that requires barricades then, surely?

The latest development is yet another twist in what has been a PR disaster for the company. According to a letter in the Evening Standard, Picturehouse recently “responded to Ken Loach’s support for our campaign by refusing to host a charity screening of his latest film”.

Such moves have led to customers tearing up their membership cards, as well as many cases of viewers giving speeches in support of the staff at the start and end of screenings.

Just last week, Monty Python’s Terry Jones urged customers to boycott a showing of their O2 Arena performance at the cinema – leading to over 100 ticket-buyers demanding their money back unless the staff got a Living Wage.

BECTU officials and Ritzy workers are hoping the strike could spread across London, the company, and the low-paid service sector as a whole in a new wave of unionisation.

So is the struggle a barometer for new trends in trade unionism? It has won significant celebrity backing – from Eric Cantona to Russell Brand – and has gained widespread knowledge through social media, the press and the local community.

I worked at a Picturehouse cinema earlier this year. Though I joined BECTU, like many staff I wasn’t there long enough to get organised – it’s a high staff-turnover sector that is overwhelmingly young and very often part-time (as well as almost universally on zero-hours contracts).

But it looks like these hurdles are being overcome. Staff at Brighton Dome, an iconic arts venue, have just overwhelmingly voted for union recognition. Over the past year, staff at the boutique Curzon chain also voted to join BECTU and are pushing for a Living Wage, while workers at Al Jazeera, Kings Place and elsewhere have followed suit in a bid to improve their conditions.

Cowan writes:

“The strength and energy of the Ritzy staff and their campaign grows and grows and I believe the human level on which we demonstrate is impossible to beat. The question is, when will Picturehouse and Cineworld choose to stop fighting it with their financial power and start using it to their advantage?”

The Ritzy drama – and the broader battle for a Living Wage – is a popular one, and one that’s hard to reject – particularly in profitable companies. Perhaps young workers are finally starting to realise they won’t get it without a fight.

Follow Josiah Mortimer on Twitter

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