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Ritzy Cinema battle has a happy ending

A creative bunch of workers won over celebrities and the local community

It’s not often that a strike by poorly paid workers wins the support of Will Self and Spiderman, but then the Ritzy cinema workers in Brixton are different.

In many ways their action opens up a challenge to all of us who might be tempted to fall into the old ways of doing things.

From day one, around a year ago when Ritzy Cinema staff walked off the job to fight for a living wage, it was clear their bosses Picturehouse were facing an unprecedented campaign.

These “managers” had got themselves into a tangle with broadcast union Bectu over recognition at the Brixton cinema but then talks moved onto the appalling rates of pay suffered by staff.

Workers demanded a London living wage. Most of us would agree with them. Their bosses refused to budge.

A strike ballot of members produced a healthy majority and so began a year of action quite unlike any other.

By the end of it, Picturehouse, now owned by the much bigger Cineworld, were caught up in something they could no longer control, a dispute which had caused a nationwide boycott of their cinemas.

Their reputation as an ultra-hip and cool place to go see films was floored.

Celebrities were queuing as if for the latest blockbuster to back the strikers.

They included local man Will Self who captured perfectly the essence of the strike in a message you can find on YouTube. Football legend Eric Cantona, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and radical filmmaker Ken Loach joined them too.

No London demo was complete without the colourful, noisy and radical Ritzy strikers dancing, chanting and celebrating their action in the streets.

Talking to the Morning Star, a union rep said: “We organised 13 strikes, starting in April through to the end of July. They were strategically chosen to hit in the hardest possible way when the Ritzy had special events or a busy programme.

“We are all creative people, so we were being as imaginative as possible. We also believed in what we were doing and we were passionate about it.

“We used social media and had a strong following. We were lively and positive as opposed to just angry. We even created a brand for our strike which was instantly recognisable.

“We were a mix of young and old, a dynamic group of people, but above all, we wanted to build solidarity and a spirit of togetherness. That’s why we lasted so long. That was behind our motivation and our enthusiasm.”

She said their campaign focused on the local Brixton community. The staff were rooted in that community and the campaign for a living wage grew organically.

A high point, even a turning point, was when Picturehouse management held an event at the cinema, and put up barriers — fences — to keep out the distraction of strikers. That was the moment when the public got off the fence so to speak, and came over to the strikers’ side.

“So many people called us and contacted our website. They signed our online petition and liked our Facebook page. It was extraordinary.”

There were low points too.

“The strike was time consuming, energy depleting and draining. But we were such a positive group and each time there was someone among us to keep the passion alive. We were never going to give up.”

In the end, the strikers settled for less than the Living Wage — for now — and there is a lesson in that too.

“We are human. It was wise to accept. We had made significant headway on the money front but this was also about having a voice and being heard.  

“We recognised what was right and what was reckless.

“When you are in a marathon, you pace yourself and save energy. We have now won the right to negotiate and we will keep our campaign going ’til we win.”

Perhaps as a fitting conclusion, the Ritzy strikers came together again recently, and went to see the showing of Pride at their cinema. This film about how LGBT campaigners supported the miners during their great strike left many of them emotional.

“We went as a group to see Pride and it brought back lots of memories of what we went through too.”

The Ritzy strike is a creative community campaign by striking workers for a living wage. Firefighters and teachers are conducting the same sort of campaigns. The Hovis workers of Wigan did the same.

Many of us will be on the October 18 TUC march demanding that Britain gets a pay rise. The Ritzy strikers will be there too.

“We are really proud of what we achieved. So many organisations supported us including the TUC. They stood with us on our picket lines and were there for us. We will be there for them too on October 18.”

You can’t miss the Ritzy strikers. When you see them, go up and say hi. They are an inspiration.

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