Ritzy fund soars in response to management threats

Supporters of the Ritzy strikers brave the cold to picket the cinema urging potential patrons to back the boycott
Supporters of the Ritzy strikers brave the cold to picket the cinema urging potential patrons to back the boycott

Management at Brixton’s Ritzy cinema has escalated the nationally important dispute there by threatening to lock out workers campaigning to be paid the official living wage.

When the Ritzy workers’ union BECTU gave official notification of strikes to back the campaign beginning on Saturday (20 January) it says that Picturehouse, the owner of the Ritzy and other cinemas, told it that the cinema would close for two weeks. Management has already sacked four union representatives from the Ritzy.

“Seventeen months into this second phase of the campaign for the living wage, the company is still refusing to sit down and talk,” said the union.

It said the lockout move, better known as a tactic of 19th century US steel barons battling emerging trade unions than one for 21st century London, would hit its members’ incomes “very hard”.

A crowfund appeal to support the workers has already gone through the first £20,000 target in a few days and is now looking for £30,000 to support the campaigners.

A supporter congratulates John McDonnell om his speech
A supporter congratulates John McDonnell on his speech outside the Ritzy

They have put the living wage high on the national agenda. It has been raised in the House of Commons by local MP Helen Hayes and shadow chancellor John McDonnell has spoken at a rally on Windrush Square outside the Ritzy.

In a letter to Ritzy staff, James VanDyke, the cinema’s general manager, said the cinema would “not be opened at all” during the strike days “as it is not economic to operate the cinema only during the remaining hours”.

He said Picturehouse would “make the effort to offer alternative shifts in other cinemas to those who will work during the strike days”.

Staff were given a deadline of 6pm today (18 January) to respond.

“If you do not work during these days then you will not be paid for those days,” VanDyke said.


Ten year plus campaign

The living wage campaign began at the Ritzy more than 10 years ago and now involves workers at other Picturehouse cinemas – Hackney Picturehouse, Picturehouse Central, Crouch End Picturehouse, and East Dulwich Picturehouse.

In 2007 workers at the Ritzy began to campaign for the living wage with the aim of raising themselves off of the minimum wage.

Seven years later, in 2014, they organised 13 high-profile strikes with BECTU. These won a 26% pay rise and an agreement with Picturehouse to negotiate towards the London Living Wage in June 2016. Even then, management attempted to gain revenge by threatening redundancies at the Ritzy after the agreement.

“The company backtracked on this agreement and have refused to negotiate in any way, disappointing employees, customers and the local communities,” say the Ritzy workers.

Rather than talk to BECTU, which became part of the large professional union Prospect last year, Picturehouse recognised a “staff forum” it had set up and funded.

Picturehouse itself is owned by the massive international cinema conglomerate Cineworld Group that made profits of £82 million profit in 2016 and is planning to spend £2.6 billion to break into the US cinema market with a deal that the Financial Times says is too expensive and will leave the group with too much debt.


Campaign targets

The campaign’s full targets are:

  • The London Living Wage
  • BECTU union recognition at Hackney, Central and Crouch End
  • Company sick pay for all staff
  • Company maternity/paternity/adoption pay
  • Fair pay rises for supervisors, managers, chefs, sound technicians and projectionists
  • Resolving in-house issues plaguing staff and customers alike.

As well as strikes and eye-catching protests, the campaign calls for a boycott of all Picturehouse cinemas. Backing has come from top industry figures like director Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake).

He said: “Picturehouse workers are heroic. Picturehouse is owned by Cineworld which is a big multinational corporation. They make fortunes. The idea that they pay starvation wages because they can get people who are desperate for work is absolutely shocking. Victory to Picturehouse workers.”

The campaigners say that Picturehouse pitches itself as an ethical business. “They host independent films and sell Fairtrade goods. Now they must complete the package and treat their staff fairly. A Living Wage is a human right. We can’t live on free popcorn and Coca Cola.”