Kiv Legate, newly elected branch secretary of the Ritzy cinema workers’ branch of BECTU (part of Prospect), and Ritzy workplace rep Kelly Rogers spoke to The Clarion about Picturehouse workers’ ongoing battle.
For a much shorter version of the interview, see the last page of the PDF of Clarion issue 4 here.
What’s the story of the dispute so far?
Kiv: Ritzy workers began campaigning around a living wage began in 2007. In 2014 we had thirteen high profile strikes and won a 26pc pay rise. The company backtracked on an agreement to meet again in June 2016 to negotiate again towards the Living Wage, and is refusing to negotiate our claim for the Living Wage, sick pay for all staff, maternity pay for everyone, and fair pay rises for various job roles. So we went back on strike in September 2016. Since then Hackney Picturehouse, Central Picturehouse and Crouch End Picturehouse have all joined the dispute, fighting for the same things plus union recognition for the BECTU section of Prospect.
Kelly: There’s been 22 strike days since September [and all four cinemas struck together for the first time on 11 February, two days later]. In addition to strikes, we’re going to speak at Labour Party meetings, at Momentum meetings, and cooperating with the Bakers’ Union about organising fast food workers, and more generally supporting workers in other industries.
Kiv: We’ve got an early day motion coming up in Parliament from Helen Hayes who’s the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood. Sadiq Khan has given us a letter of support, urging Picturehouse to listen to our demands. We’re holding a demo in Leicester Square on February 25, assembling outside Empire Cinema, because Cineworld, which owns Picturehouses, has just bought that chain for £92 million.
What are the political issues involved?
Kiv: The Living Wage as the law is a longer term goal, if you take into account rent and travel and so on that’s the minimum that’s needed.
Kelly: It ties into various things Jeremy Corbyn has raised, like bumping up the minimum wage significantly. We would argue the minimum wage should be at least the Living Wage – Labour has said £10 an hour. There’s things like repealing the anti-union laws, supporting people on zero hours contracts, rolling back casualisation and contracting out. These are things we’re campaigning around. Then there’s big political events, like Brexit. We recently went to a United Voices of the World [small, radical trade union] meeting, and we met the LSE cleaners who are taking strike action at the moment, and some workers campaigning at Harrods. They are in the vast majority migrant workers, but at Picturehouse too we have a large number of migrant workers in our workforce. The issue hasn’t come up so much previously but the day after the Brexit vote we got an email to every member of staff from the Picturehouse managing director saying, we promise to try hard to make sure no one is deported, which hammered home what Brexit could mean for us and at all these other workplaces. That’s going to become a bigger issue for trade unionists, and primarily in low paid, precarious workplaces.
Kiv: On the anti-union laws, the issue has come up in our dispute. We’ve been contacted numerous times by the Picturehouse lawyers alleging intimidating behaviour and unlawful picketing, too many people on the picket line, and things like that. The laws surrounding strikes and pickets are very vague, with lots of space for interpretation, and the company is trying to use that.
Kelly: We’re being asked to discipline our own members, and essentially not doing anything that would benefit us or make the strike too effective… The anti-union laws have affected our strike at every stage, right from having to post our ballots, which sounds simple, but it’s actually difficult particularly when people’s ballots don’t turn up because of problems with the post. Every single ballot we’ve had we’ve lost a certain number of votes because of that problem. Also the fact that we have to tell the employer who is being balloted, which I don’t think they have any right to know, they can find out when the strike happens. And we have to give a week’s notice. If we repeal these laws then that immediately makes strike action much more effective. We need to put repealing these laws on the political agenda.
Kiv: Yes, things are bad now and with the Trade Union Act it’s going to get worse. The risk is we’ll have further and further attacks on workers’ rights – we need to push back and improve our rights.
The Living Wage is still at a very low level. It shows you how confident employers are that they resist even that.
Kiv: Yes, if we win we’ll still only get £9.75, in London.
Kelly: The CEO of Cineworld, Mooky Greidinger, is on £1.2 million, which we just worked out is –
Kiv: £575 an hour! It puts it into perspective.
Kelly: Over the last five or so years the Living Wage has become a popular concept, it’s been used by more trade unions and campaigns, but the concept itself is subject to struggle. For instance, the Living Wage Foundation defines it as a lower level than the TUC does – our demand is based on the Living Wage Foundation demand, which again shows what a basic demand this is. There is every possibility the so-called Living Wage level will stagnate. But the concept of a living wage is an important one as long as we try to establish it as the minimum.
Kiv: We do come across the argument, well, you get paid more than lots of other people in different jobs, but the thing is, all those people demand higher wages. We have an opportunity and platform because we’re unionised to stand up and fight for the Living Wage, if everyone got unionised and campaigned then we’d have a stronger movement.
How do you think things will unfold?
Kelly: Now, at the Ritzy and then Hackney we’re quite used to going on strike, but now with the strikes coming up people are having to learn things from the start again, and we’re working on making people feel confident and comfortable. Each time we spread the struggle there’s more work to do…
Kiv: But there are also more people involved to do it. It’s a good problem to have.
Kelly: In addition to hopefully winning some of our key demands, if we succeed in unionising other sites, that’d be fantastic. The Staff Forum, which is the company-run sham union that you are automatically part of and actually have to opt out of, only has 400 members out of about 1,000 in the company, and we have over 150, so we’re on the way. The company set up the Staff Forum in 2007 during the first Ritzy strike basically to prevent other sites from unionising, because they knew if there’s already a recognised union we wouldn’t be able to apply for statutory recognition, which is why the Ritzy is the only site where BECTU is recognised. Union recognition is a key demand: you can win something brilliant, but if you don’t have collective bargaining, you see how quickly they can erode it.
At the Ritzy there’s been a strong union branch for more than ten years now, with some ups and downs, but people are much more confident and likely to challenge management. You can see it in loads of different ways, for instance people are more likely to call out sexism, because they have that sense of being collective and responsible for one another, we’ve been on strike, and so of course we stick together through these other things.
Kiv: And there’s a sense of being able to do something about it, when you’re in a union there’s a process you can go through to act to change things and get stuff done.
At the other Picturehouses, you’ve got some links and relatively similar workforces, but what do you think it would take to step from that into the wider Cineworld chain?
Kiv: Lots of hour of footwork, visiting sites, speaking to staff, with no guarantees.
Kelly: It’s a lot of work and it’s difficult, there are 270 Cineworld cinemas with a much bigger workforce as against 21 Picturehouses, but we should probably give it a go in the middle of a struggle, because then people are more likely to pay attention. That was our experience with other Picturehouses, people were interested but once the strikes started, immediately the interest peaked. It’s something we should be trying to do. We basically need to work out a way to get supporters, for instance maybe Momentum groups, to help us do that.
How does this struggle fit into your wider politics?
Kiv: I’ve only got engaged in the whole union side of life in the last year, it’s been a rapid rise for me, but now I can see plainly that unionisation is one of the most important things in a worker’s life; it’s absolutely integral that whenever you join a workforce you’re part of a union because it can give you so much power. Also my absolute belief in the Living Wage and that that should be the law, as we said it’s still the bare minimum, but it’s a basic we should win.
Kelly: I’m a socialist and have been for a number of years now and I knew that once I left university I was going to join a union as soon as I got a job. This isn’t the first time I’ve been a member of BECTU: when I worked in a theatre previously, we campaigned around the Living Wage and got some concessions. It’s something everyone should be doing. How does it feed into wider politics? I believe the primary means by which we’re exploited is through work, and I think organising around it is central to the possibility of winning a good life, from a feminist perspective as well as a socialist perspective. We were thinking how great it would be to strike on International Women’s Day, because the demands we’re calling for would primarily benefit women, who are disproportionately in low paid work, and lose out when wages are low and maternity pay is crap, and that would really bring together the different parts of these politics, which are part of the socialist whole.
And how do other workers in Picturehouses that are organising generally see politics?
Kiv: Of course it varies a lot, some are politically engaged and some aren’t, but for sure the strikes is great for getting people engaged who weren’t before. When something affects people directly it’s much easier to interest them.
Kelly: The Ritzy is by far the most politically engaged workplace I’ve worked in. I’ve worked in similar places, with young workers and in arty cinemas and theatres and there’s been nowhere near as much political engagement. That might be partly because it’s London but I think the primary thing is that there’s a history of strikes and so people are more switched on. The strike three years ago put people in touch with all kinds of organisations. The first time I met Ritzy workers was at a Reclaim Brixton protest, they were there with Living Wage flags and their t-shirts on. It’s definitely brought workers closer to the community. People have been going to anti-Trump demos, to anti-austerity demos, and feminist stuff. Quite a few people registered for the Labour leadership election, to vote for Corbyn, but their attitude is quite mixed, mainly because we have really quite bad experiences of Lambeth Labour council. I’ve faced some criticism for working with the Labour Party when, for instance, they’re closing down libraries.
More generally, I think we have a choice, as people who are organising the branch, do we focus on the campaign and keep it depoliticised and a stand-alone thing, in order to make people feel comfortable…
Kiv: But then some people get more engaged if you take the other side and make it more political…
Kelly: One thing I really regret is that we didn’t do more as a branch around the Brexit vote. We’re an active, relatively militant, organised workplace with a large number of migrant workers, so we should have been out campaigning, but we didn’t. But I think that’s down to people who are organising, to raise those arguments.
Kiv: I agree, but I also think it’s our job to represent members’ views and fight for their basic interests at work, and not let the politics overwhelm that.
Can you say more about your relationship with Lambeth Labour Party? [The Ritzy is in Brixton.]
Kelly: Recently we’ve been going to quite a lot of Labour ward meetings, and I went in all guns blazing, pointing out that the council has this deal where they’ve contributed £4 million to turning West Norwood library into a Picturehouse cinema library, which obviously they should not have done while we’re in dispute if at all, which I still believe very much, but actually since then Lambeth council is apparently going to pass a resolution and calling on Picturehouse to pay the Living Wage, and there’s been councillors mobilising their wards to come to picket lines. Obviously it’s relatively easy to state their support while continuing to do their deal with Picturehouse.
What they’ve done with the libraries obviously is unforgiveable… I occupied Carnegie library and that was massive, we had the biggest demonstration in Brixton in ten years, 3,000 people marching in support of the occupation. We have the absurdity of the council spending more on security to guard the library sites than they would on keeping them open, and the community is very angry that we’re losing some of the very few public spaces that we have left, where you can have warmth and company and the internet and books, and the council seems determined to do it regardless of everything…
Has the council got on board because there’s grassroots Labour support or is it the general force of your campaign or what?
Kelly: I think the Living Wage is something it’s easy to get on board with. And it’s too late for them to pull out of their West Norwood deal, so it’s not really effecting them in that respect. Lambeth Council is a Living Wage employer, the Labour Party does support the Living Wage, so I think they’d find it difficult not to support us, but I’m glad they are, because it adds pressure to Picturehouse, but again you see the difference between this and the libraries, where they called police on elderly women…
Kiv: There’s parallels too, the same way the council is paying loads of money so they can enforce their process, we have Picturehouse spending money on lawyers to bring legal action against us, and paying managers to fill the gaps on strike, they’re spending so much money in order to break the strike.
What support have you had from the wider labour movement?
Kiv: The support we’ve had from other trade unionists is astounding. In my year as a trade unionist I’ve already noticed that when people see your t-shirt, they know it’s the Ritzy campaign and you get an amazing response. People are always willing to show solidarity.
Kelly: The same is true of the Labour Party; it’s been great, because there’s been this small but significant surge of left-wing Labour members in Lambeth, which is why there’s people organising to get us invited to their ward meetings, and once we’re there we get the whole audience. The councillor might sit at the back looking a bit grumpy but then at the end they say yes, I’ll tweet in support. Vauxhall Momentum organised a fundraiser for us, there’s been bucket collections and I know Dulwich and West Norwood Labour Party is bringing their banner again on Saturday. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. We want the Labour Party to become the party of strikes, don’t we, so that is very important.
How about the leadership?
Kiv: We’re hoping Corbyn will come, maybe to the demo on the 25th, that’d be a good time to do it…
Kelly: The problem is everything is filtered through Corbyn’s office. Even when I saw Corbyn at a Momentum Christmas social in Lewisham, he’s surrounded by people trying to get them to sign their teddy bear, and I don’t know whether he actually reads the emails. I think the Picturehouse strikes are one of the most exciting things happening at the moment, because it’s growing so rapidly, because it’s a young and precarious workforce, because there are so many migrant workers, it’s not going to disappear and go away, I think it’s very exciting – it’s a shame if people in Corbyn’s office aren’t convinced of that. But we hope that will change. If Sadiq Khan who condemned the Tube strikes can write a letter, I’m sure John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn can support us. I think it would really help if they turned up to a picket line or a demo, and make everyone feel great and really galvanised.
• Demonstration on 25 February: meet 12 noon, outside the Empire in Leicester Square. Facebook event here
• Sign the TUC petition in support of the Picturehouse workers here
• Facebook groups: A Living Wage for Ritzy Staff – A Living Wage for Hackney Picturehouse Staff – A Living Wage for Crouch End Picturehouse Staff – A Living Wage for Picturehouse Central Staff
• More information, speakers etc: firstname.lastname@example.org (they can put you in touch with the other cinemas)