On their sixth strike day, the staff at Ritzy cinema staged a lively protest, which attracted the support of the local community, reports Peter Stäuber
The Ritzy cinema workers have received backing from a number of celebrities, among them film director Ken Loach and former Globe director Mark Rylance. But on Saturday they got a show of support from a rather more unlikely celebrity. Former Manchester United striker Eric Cantona, who was at the Hackney Picturehouse to do a Q&A for his new film, joined the three dozen protesters outside the cinema to have his picture taken with them.
He wasn't the only one to show his support. Local kids and passers-by were clearly impressed by the noisy cinema workers and joined them for a Samba dance in front of the large banner that read: "Pay the Ritzy Staff the Living Wage". The cinema workers had travelled to the Hackney Picturehouse from Windrush Square in Brixton, where they had spent Saturday picketing in front of the Ritzy Cinema.
It was the sixth strike day since April and comes only days after a decision by Picturehouse Cinemas, which runs the Ritzy, to pull out of wage negotiations at the last minute. "We had an agreement with the company [Picturehouse Cinemas] after the last strike in Hackney that they were prepared to get back around the table with an offer which they thought would please us," says Nia Hughes, branch secretary of the media and entertainment union Bectu.
Union officials sent an email reconfirming the conditions under which they would agree to new negotiations. The company accepted those, says Nia, and the meeting was scheduled for 4 June. "But on 3 June there was a meeting called with head office where they gave us a leaflet saying that they've imposed a 4 percent rise in our wages. That's 28 pence." With this, they officially removed themselves from the negotiations, says Nia.
"They basically wanted to put an end to the whole thing," says Robyn Stocker, who has been working at the Ritzy for three years. "They basically wanted to say, here you go, 4 percent, now please let's move on. There was no communication with the staff." Bectu General Secretary Gerry Morrissey called the move "a destructive and dishonest trick."
The present dispute started last October, when the wage negotiations anniversary came up. "We realised that our wages are severely lagging behind things like inflation, the rise in rents in Brixton, and also in comparison to the profits that the company make." At the moment, staff at the Ritzy Cinema earn £7.29 an hour. Picturehouse raised its total revenue by 7.6 percent last year, yielding a profit of £1.5m. In 2012, the multiplex giant Cineworld bought Picturehouses in a deal worth £47.3m, making owner and founder Lyn Goleby a multimillionaire.
"We thought it was time to stand up and say, we want to be paid more respectfully," says Nia. They decided on the London Living Wage, which stands at £8.80 at the moment. The living wage is the figure set by the Greater London Authority as the minimum on which somebody can live in the capital. It also gives the workers security that wages will rise in line with living costs, so that wages don't have to be re-negotiated every year. "We wanted that. We're a really great staff and we deserve it. We pretty much made that place [the Ritzy] what it is, and we've had enough," says Nia.
Wage negotiations went on for several months, but the employer never came up with an offer that was acceptable to the Ritzy workers. "There was always an inclination to impose a bonus scheme, which is linked to performance," says Robyn. "That does not reflect what we believe is right."
The strikes that started in April are loud and lively, and draw a lot of backing from locals. "Everybody has been really supportive," says Robyn. "Lots of people are shocked that we're not paid the living wage. The response has been really encouraging." There has also been lots of support from other workers fighting for fairer pay. "On May Day, we went down to Clapham for a rally, we were joined by the lecturers from Lambeth College, who are also fighting for improved pay." The Ritzy workers have also been joined by striking cleaners at SOAS, and have in turn taken part in their protests.
A successful struggle by the Ritzy staff – the only Picturehouse workers who are unionised – would have repercussions for all workers at the company, as the living wage would have to be paid to all London staff. Yesterday night, the workers at the Hackney Picturehouse appreciated the protest from the Brixton staff, even though they couldn't take part in it. "If I went outside now, I would be sacked," says one woman working behind the counter. "But I am definitely happy they are here."
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.
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