Workers at the independent Picturehouse Cinemas chain have been in dispute with their head office. Their aim? To avoid being officially poverty-stricken by getting paid the London living wage, which currently stands at about £8.80 an hour. This has led to a series of strikes and demonstrations; you may have been hassled yourself outside a Picturehouse cinema by furious staff holding banners with Big Lebowski quotes on them. Staff at the Ritzy in Brixton went on strike over pay back in 2007 and won a raise. Now, they’re at it again.
The Ritzy is the kind of place that makes a big deal about not being a big soulless chain – it sources its craft beer locally and so on; it presents itself as a kind of noble little guy that exists despite the Odeons and the Vues of this world. So to some extent, their reputation is on the line. There’s a similar dispute happening at Curzon cinemas at the moment, another art-house chain that trades on the same image.
Meanwhile, the workers don't seem in the mood for compromise. Earlier this year, management made an offer to raise wages from £7.53 to £8.80 by October 2015, which sounds OK, but it got turned down because by then, the London living wage will almost definitely be higher.
Picturehouse argue that they simply can’t afford to pay their workers any more than that. They pay well above the current minimum wage and more than other cinemas but the company made a £1.3m operating profit last year, paying its director £160,000. Then there’s the fact that Picturehouse is not as independent as it would like people to think, having been bought by Cineworld in 2012 for £47 million. The parent company made a £31m profit last year. The workers are wondering why these riches aren't trickling down to them.
Sunday saw the largest of the 11 staff walkouts at the Brixton Ritzy so far. Since I could no longer enjoy an afternoon at the cinema, I headed down to check out the protest.
A hundred or so angry cinema workers and their supporters hung around outside, listening to a samba band and holding banners with famous lines from films which, out of context, make it sound like they're supporting the strike. ("The Dude minds man! This just won't stand!"; "I don't want to survive, I want to live!" – that kind of thing.)
The management had erected a large metal fence around the front of the building and hired a load of security guards. I asked the management staff who were staffing the tills for a comment on the situation, but they declined.
Embarrassingly, Terry Jones had told people not to attend the screening of a Monty Python live show at the venue, which was due to take place that evening. Presumably the Michael Haneke fans who usually frequent the place were steering well clear anyway.
Ken Loach, the left-wing film director, has also voiced his support for the workers, as have James Nesbitt, Clio Barnard, Mark Rylance, Irvine Welsh, Elizabeth Berrington and Will Self.
And who would have expected Eric Cantona to weigh in? An endorsement from Vinnie Jones can't be far off. Or maybe it can.
The managers directed me to their leaflet, which states that staff get a £1 an hour bonus on top of their £7.53 an hour “in weeks in which the customer service standards are met”. They also say their pay is at a level that attracts and retains good staff, but that isn’t saying all that much when there aren’t enough jobs at the moment and most of the ones that are available suck.
A worker not on strike gets angry at a protester
The noisy strikers had pulled in an array of unions and other groups showing solidarity. About ten or 15 of them barged past staff to enter Ritzy screen one, where they got up on stage and began to address the audience about the dispute.
The manager ordered security to manhandle the group off stage. One protester found himself pinned to the wall with the manager’s hand around his throat, to the horror of some customers who prefer their violence on the screen, before being chucked out.
A demonstrator complains to a cop about being manhandled
“It’s been a PR disaster for Picturehouse. They’ve had a small screening behind metal barricades, lines of police and thuggish intimidation of protesters. They should be ashamed of themselves,” Simon Hardy from Left Unity told me afterwards. As the pressure grows on the cinema chain, more strikes and bad PR will surely follow. The chain resolutely claims, however, that they just can’t afford to raise wages.
“It’s the way in which their business model is structured,” Marc Cowan, a Ritzy worker, told me. “They say they don’t have the funds to pay it, but that’s because their funds go elsewhere, like their shareholders and their senior staff… There’s an irony that the people who work here are trying to get into a similar industry that they provide by showing films, and yet they’re crushing that by not paying us properly, ruining our chances of getting to that stage where we can make our own films.”
At £16 a pop, the cost of a ticket to see the Monty Python live show was more than two hours' wages for front of house staff. Meanwhile, Ritzy bosses point out that the pay divide between the top manager and the ordinary worker will not be more than ten to one.
Overall, it seems like Ritzy are hardly the most evil company ever. They’re not making billions paying children starvation wages to work in sweatshops. They’re making millions paying film graduates slightly more than other chains to put on better movies in air-conditioned cinemas. But the living wage is the amount you need not to live in poverty, and Picturehouse's claims of not being able to provide it don't really add up. It says a lot about the state of the economy when the company can say, without fear of contradiction, that they’re better employers than the competition when their staff are having a mass strike outside the front of the building.
More stuff about work: