Strikers on the picket line. Photo: Katarzyna Perlak Strikers on the picket line. Photo: Katarzyna Perlak

Workers at Ritzy Cinema in Brixton mount campaign of strikes demanding the London Living Wage. Alistair Cartwright reports

From 9am til 3am. This has to be one of the longest running, unbroken picket lines in recent memory. At 7pm the action outside the Ritzy cinema was just about to kick into a higher gear. Drummers struck up a beat, whistled shrieked and about 35 cinema workers plus supporters started a placard waving dance, set to cries of ‘What do we want? Living wage! When do want it? Now!’

Staff at the Ritzy in Brixton were on strike to demand the £8.80 London Living Wage, a rate calculated by the London Living Wage Foundation according to the basic costs of living in the capital.

The Ritzy is part of the independent-minded Picturehouse chain, which is now owned by Cineworld, the biggest cinema operator in the UK and the second biggest in Europe. Far from the image that top management might like to project – a struggling independent in hard times for the movies – the Ritzy is in fact the busiest art-house cinema in the UK and now part of a major international company. Last year Cineworld’s profits were up 24% for the first half of 2013. This figure received a massive boost from the company’s acquisition of the Picturehouse chain in 2012.

‘Ethical’ poverty pay

Picturehouse cinemas tend to cater to a more affluent, middle class audience. They enjoy an image for supporting independent films and generally maintaining more ethical and culturally sustainable values than your average Odeon. More flat white than bottomless Pepsi. And yet staff are currently paid a poverty wage of £7.24.

Radical filmmaker and socialist Ken Loach points out just how ‘hypocritical’ it is ‘to sell fair trade coffee and then not pay a fair wage.’ On the picket line Amelia Womack, a Green MEP candidate and local council candidate, made a similar point:

‘The Ritzy survives out of the respect for film that it asks from its customers, encouraging people to go to the cinema rather than simply download films. It is hypocritical that it doesn’t show the same respect for its employees… people should not have to work for slave wages.’

The cinema workers, members of Bectu, the entertainment union, have been in dispute since October. So far the management has offered to increase pay to £8, a deal the strikers have refused to accept. Bectu member Raquel Miravalles described how the management was digging its heels in, saying it would never commit to paying the Living Wage.

The reason for management’s stubbornness becomes somewhat clearer when you look at Cineworld’s balance sheets for the last few months. In February 2014 the company bought up Cinema City International, which runs cinemas in seven European countries plus Israel. The deal, worth £503 million, incurred ‘exceptional’ transaction costs, according to the Financial Times (including £6 million in 2013 with a further anticipated £4 million in 2014).

Sheer greed

In other words: sheer greed, driven by the logic of competition and expansion. And yet Cineworld is still posting strong profits, bucking the trend of declining UK box office receipts.

Despite resistance from management, the campaign is pressing ahead with a mixture of patience and daring. The amazing atmosphere on the picket line clearly has something to do with the strong links of friendship and solidarity in the cinema itself. Raquel described how “for some this is their sole source of income. Others are artists in their spare time.’ But amongst all of them there is a very supportive community. One worker on strike described how when he moved to London, working at the Ritzy introduced him to ‘some of the best bunch of people he’d met.”

Support from the local community has been equally important, with local restaurants providing food and hot drinks, and allowing strikers to use their toilets. Passersby in Windrush square waved and shouted their approval.

The fight for fair pay at the Ritzy is far from over. A new strike date is already set – timed to hit the Easter weekend, from 5pm on Good Friday till 3am on Sunday.

It is also far from isolated. Staff at Curzon Cinemas, another independent chain, are also campaigning for the Living Wage.

These struggles should be seen as part of a wider resistance to low wages and zero hour contracts, which have served to paper over the gaping hole of declining real wages – a mainstay of the government’s recovery for the 1%.

Watch out for another all-dancing picket this weekend. Check out the campaign’s Facebook page for more details.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.