THE RITZY LIVING WAGE campaign has been one of the most high-profile UK industrial disputes in recent memory. The first wave of strikes began in 2014 at the cinema which is part of the Picturehouse chain, and came to an end following the workers’ acceptance of a significantly increased pay offer (26%) that fell just short of the London Living Wage. Following a series of deadlocked pay negotiations, the next wave of strikes began in 2016 and is still continuing. This latter stage of the dispute has been defined by both an expansion of the campaign, with what began as a series of strikes confined to one cinema spreading to Picturehouse sites across the country, and an increasingly aggressive anti-union stance from Picturehouse and their Cineworld owners.
In June 2017, the management counteroffensive took a particularly vindictive turn with the sacking of four BECTU reps at the Ritzy, followed by suspensions and additional disciplinary measures at other sites. The strikers themselves have written eloquently about the progress of the industrial campaign and so I will focus my attention on the solidarity campaign formed in response to these sackings, which has been largely comprised of Labour Party activists from the Ritzy’s surrounding constituencies (Dulwich and West Norwood, and Streatham).
Almost immediately after the sackings, we began to hold what came to be known as ‘community pickets’ outside the Ritzy every weekday evening. This entailed forming picket lines outside the cinema, leafleting customers about the dispute and attempting to persuade them to boycott the chain. Although the workers had called for a boycott some months ago many customers remained blissfully unaware of the conditions faced by staff in general and the victimisation faced by trade unionists in particular. We sought to redress this and rapidly became a recognised part of the local scenery, helped by a sympathetic local media. The timing of the solidarity action, following directly after the 2017 general election, also proved advantageous.
Activists so recently enthused by Labour’s manifesto found a clear resonance in the demands of the strikers.
The pickets had a morale-raising effect on the strikers, who were facing an unremitting campaign of intimidation combined with the loss of their leading activists. They also had a positive impact on local Labour Party politics. In my CLP, Dulwich and West Norwood, many of the activists from the solidarity campaign have since become active in their local party branches, as well as their own trade unions. The relationships between local Labour councils and union-busting firms have also come under fresh scrutiny, with local members challenging Lambeth Labour Group on the council’s provision of a former library to Picturehouse for an upcoming cinema in West Norwood.
Lewisham council recently stepped back from a similar venture with Picturehouse under pressure from local activists.
Wherever possible we have taken the opportunity to promote the campaign within the local Labour Party. In Dulwich and West Norwood sympathetic ward secretaries have advertised the community pickets, invited strikers to speak at meetings and taken strike fund collections. Our CLP trade union liaison officer has organised several meetings linking together the Picturehouse campaign with other local struggles, including that of the McDonald’s workers in BFAWU and hotel workers in Unite. The right-dominated local party leadership, however, has sadly proved less than enthusiastic about the campaign, with some senior members even breaking the boycott.
Eight months on, the community pickets are still going, although we have had to scale down our efforts to weekly actions. Lambeth Unison has been instrumental in the survival of the solidarity campaign through their provision of campaigning resources and the dedication of their activists. Although the pickets have become less frequent we have refocused our efforts on fundraising with some success, collecting sizable weekly strike fund donations.
The strike campaign will need to spread even further to overcome the continued obduracy of the Picturehouse management. Local Labour Parties could and should play a key role in helping to bring this about. The more and more workers take up and extend the demands set out in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, the more chance we will have of implementing and defending them when Labour forms the next government.
For further information see: https:// www.facebook.com/brixtonboycottstheritzy/
Unison delegate to Dulwich and West Norwood GC