On Monday, it was announced that 60,000 more workers were going to benefit from earning the Living Wage, as the number of companies that pay it has more than doubled since 2013. On the same day, that wage rose 20p to £7.85 and up to £9.15 in London. The news seemed to be a dent in the seemingly inescapable narrative that this country is becoming a place where the rich get tax breaks and the poor get tax breaks but can't afford to eat.
And it sort of was, but it didn't change the bigger picture. That number was dwarfed by the number of workers who have joined the ranks of the underpaid in the last year: 147,000. The number of people toiling away for less than the living wage grew to over five million.
Nevertheless, last week, something happened that should give hope to anyone who gets paid less than the cost of two drinks per hour to work in a bar.
Workers at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton had been campaigning for increased pay for about a year when, in September, they finally negotiated an incremental pay rise scheme that will see them earning an extra 26 percent come 2016.
It was a battle that started as the pace of gentrification in Brixton was making the area unaffordable for the independent cinema's workers, while the population of people you can charge £12 to see Wes Anderson's latest release increased. As BECTU trade union rep Nia Hughes told me, "I think we realised we were really beginning to feel the pressures of life in Brixton and through that process of – I don't know if you want to call it gentrification – but basically the cost of living became a real issue."
After 13 strikes in the space of a few months earlier this year, Picturehouse – owned by the not-really-all-that-independent Cineworld chain – relented.
While the pay deal doesn't actually reach the dizzying heights of a living wage, they won a pay rise to £8.20 immediately, £8.80 an hour by next September and £9.10 by 2016. They gained a bigger slice of the cake for themselves by knowing they deserved it, organising to get it and refusing to back down.
Then, on Tuesday last week, in a plot twist so filmic somebody should have seen it coming, Picturehouse announced that they were starting a consultation process to make 20 of the 93 of those workers redundant. Having finally made a concession to their workers, and clawed back a bit of their arty, not-an-asshole-corporation image, they then decided it was a superb time for a mass lay-off.
But just two days later, a happy ending was snatched from the jaws of bastardry. The day before, Rival art-house chain Curzon had agreed to pay their workers a living wage after a similar campaign by its workers. Faced with more negative PR than a Dany Dyer straight-to-DVD release, Picturehouse called off the redundancy process. Rather than racing to the bottom to pay people as little as possible, it seemed that companies were running scared of their workers, the campaigns they ran and the public disdain that comes with not paying people enough to live on.
There have been other recent successes beyond those won by the employees at the Ritzy and Curzon. Back in June, I met some of the outsourced Latin American cleaning workers at the University of London, and they were very worried that they were about to lose their jobs. "We have contracts until the 19th of September, which is kind of like it's got a sentence written on it," Olga, one of the cleaners, told me in Spanish through an interpreter. Another named Sonia broke down in tears at the prospect of losing her job. "I can't handle it," she said.
Since 2011, the UoL cleaners had fought for improved conditions, and won. T hey campaigned and went on strike until their wages were raised from £6.15 to £9.15 now. Weirdly their trade union, Unison, became more of a hinderance than a help and dug up some technicalities to declare their votes in union elections invalid. When the cleaners protested outside Unison's offices, the union called the cops on them. Rather than give up, the cleaners simply formed their own union – the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB). They kept striking and won sick pay, holiday pay and pension rights, too.
But while they were being championed by the left, they weren't protected from the threat of being laid off. The university was closing the halls of residence that many of the IWGB activists worked in. As cleaning contractor Cofely rejigged its workforce, it became clear that some workers would be kept on in new positions – yet none of those who had been active in the new union were among their number.
Sonia, one of the cleaners who had been most active in the campaign, told me she had seen this coming. "I felt certain that I wasn't going to be selected for a new job… I always said what had to be said; I didn't hold back. In the protests, when we went to Senate House, and made short speeches, my bosses were there, always watching."
She was dreading the prospect of going back into poverty pay. "I am conscious of the fact that when I leave and go to a new job, I'll probably get £6.31 per hour, won't have sick pay and won't have that 25 days holiday, probably just 20," she said. "That hurts a lot because we know that we've fought a lot for this and the company has selected the people to lose their jobs as those who have fought most for these things."
Olga was more hopeful, and told me, "The struggle hasn't ended and it's my personal conviction that God is above watching and that he is everything and there will be justice." This struck me as kind of naïve, but it turns out Olga was right. The cleaners made an employment tribunal claim for trade union discrimination, after which three of the leading activists were offered jobs, including Sonia – the lead claimant – and Olga.
When I called for a catch up this week, Jason Moyer Lee, the IWGB President and the guy who had been translating, told me that while it had looked like a case of "act up and get sacked", in the end, "the people who have been most active are untouchable".
These stories aren't finished. The Ritzy workers remain concerned that Picturehouse will renege on the deal they made. The 3 Cosas tribunal claim is still pending, with further IWGB members without new jobs, not to mention the £177,677 of compensation being sought.
Nevertheless, in a pretty barren political landscape, these events offer some hope. David Cameron's vision for a Britain of "hard-working families" is, Tom Hodgkinson recently wrote, "a slaves' charter" which "shows that he is spectacularly out of touch with what people want – which is to enjoy life".
Recently, those looking for alternatives could be forgiven for getting depressed. Labour, also a fan of "hard-working families", recently promised to tackle the cost of living crisis by raising the minimum wage to £8 – but by 2020, when that'll be mostly worthless. Trade Union marches for higher wages are dwindling in size as impoverishment grows. The return of Occupy was mercifully short-lived, presumably because few people think sitting in a tent as the weather goes crap is a great way to shake things up.
Those campaigns have wildly differing ambitions – a slight pay rise in a few years time, or a total revolution through an awakening of consciousness brought about by urban camping. What they share is their failure to inspire much confidence for people who are, right now, looking at their bills and wondering what the food bank has in store. Britain's dubious economic recovery is in no small part based on people getting paid less. But by sacking off working for peanuts, screwing the profits of their employers and relentlessly embarrassing them in public, London's art-house cinema workers and immigrant cleaners showed that in austerity Britain there are not only victims, but culprits, and they can be beaten.
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