Recently, one of Red Wedge's editors had the chance while in London to stop by the picket line at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. It was perhaps one of the more spirited and creative picket lines that he's attended in quite some time, particularly considering the bitter cold and the utter intransigence of management.
The Ritzy is part of the Picturehouse chain of cinemas in Britain, which presents itself as somewhat art-house but unpretentious (the Ritzy, for example, is currently showing Jim Jarmusch's latest film Paterson as well as Office Christmas Party). It's hardly the only cinema that fancies itself as representing an "independent" vibe while in fact being a very lucrative and frequently cutthroat capitalist enterprise, and its recent actions reveal as much. Picturehouse is itself owned by Cineworld, a massive company that pulled down approximately £83.8 million profit in 2015, and in 2016 have reported profits to be notably higher. Yet management has refused to even consider workers' demand to be paid the London living wage and to receive ample sick pay.
Two years ago, the Ritzy's workers struck for union recognition and a London living wage (£9.75 an hour in London, £8.25 elsewhere in Britain). Though management initially seemed to give in, in fact they have dragged their feet in implementing the living wage. Workers are paid £9.10 currently. Not only is this slightly below the living wage, but decent hours are not contractually mandated. Employees are only given sick pay if they miss eight days of work, and new hires aren't given any at all for the first year. This year, it is not only the Ritzy who have been taking strike action (several one day or half day strikes since October) but the Hackney Picturehouse, a member of the same chain of cinemas in the East London borough of Hackney.
There is, quite obviously, a massive gap between the boutique ethics that Picturehouse appears to promote and the rather brazen denial of a decent living for its staff, particularly when cinema-goers are paying £13 or more each visit. It is as if, in the narrative presented by Cineworld, movies just happen, as if no actual human beings are involved in their showing.
Which is why the creativity of the striking workers themselves has been such a welcome part of their actions. Far from being the kind of faceless drones that we are taught to think of when low-wage workers come to mind, these are people who themselves are artists, poets, aspiring filmmakers, or just people who want a decent share of the joy in life. On the first night of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the Ritzy, workers brought a large dragon they had constructed themselves, wrapping it round the tree in Windrush Square directly in front of the cinema. The picketing leaflets and other materials below bring a similar creativity, even playfulness, to the campaign.
And that, of course, is the point: nothing happens without actual human minds and hands being involved in the process. With management ignoring pleas from the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU, which represents the workers) further strike action seems likely. Red Wedge stands with the strikers. If you care about a fair world for the arts and artists themselves, then we say you should show your support too.
"Feuilleton" is the Red Wedge editors' blog focused on announcements, events and relevant debate.