In an abrupt about-turn Picturehouse Cinemas, owner of the Ritzy art house cinema in Brixton, withdrew its redundancy notices covering a quarter of the workforce just three days after it had issued them.
The workers had no intention of letting themselves be divided and bullied. Their union BECTU was preparing a ballot for further strikes when Stephen Wiener, CEO of the parent company Cineworld, stepped in and ordered the climbdown.
Picturehouse Cinemas had announced on 27 October that a quarter of the workforce would now face the sack – to pay for the wage rise won in one of the most imaginative and vociferous struggles of 2014.
The threatened job cuts – in breach of the ACAS agreement which set out how staffing would be handled in the wake of the dispute – constituted “a clear action of retribution, of punishment, for the campaign by Ritzy workers,” said the workers’ union, BECTU, in a statement.
The union had responded quickly, announcing on 28 October that it would hold a strike ballot. On 30 October the company backed down faced with the prospect of the ballot and assailed by a massive backlash developing against the company on social media.
The union welcomed the climbdown, but warned that it is insisting on long-term guarantees about members’ job security before it will cancel the planned strike ballot, due to get under way on 4 November.
“Today is a great day, not only for our members at the cinema and their supporters, but for workers and their trade unions everywhere”
Gerry Morrissey, BECTU general secretary, said after the climbdown: “Today 34 jobs at the Ritzy cinema have been saved. Today is a great day, not only for our members at the cinema and their supporters, but for workers and their trade unions everywhere. Fight and we can win.”
Wiener claimed to have been unaware of the depths to which relations with management had sunk. More likely he had sized up the strength of the phenomenal upsurge of support from Ritzy customers who mounted an immediate protest. His position also was undermined as rival chain Curzon Cinemas stated the day before that they would pay their front-of-house staff the full London Living Wage of £8.80.
The dispute was poised to spread embarrassingly throughout the whole Picturehouse chain. Workers at their cinemas in Clapham and Brighton, inspired by the Ritzy struggle, were taking their fight to management for union recognition.
The bad publicity would also have overshadowed the start of a prestigious partnership between Picturehouse and the National Media Museum in Bradford, focus of British cinematography and home to a yearly International Film Festival. On 31 October Picturehouse began running NMM’s three cinemas. This has helped to ensure the long-term sustainability of the museum, which has been under threat from cuts in government funding.
BECTU are wise to be cautious about these events however; they insist that the ballot will remain until the workforce is offered guaranteed job security for the future. They have reason to be suspicious: the Cineworld finance director was less reassuring than the CEO that jobs could be guaranteed. He warned that they were safe “for now” but that nothing could be promised indefinitely.
Victory came just as the Ritzy was showing the film Pride about working class solidarity. Their struggle has been conducted brilliantly by young workers at their place of work and not by union generals. They did this not simply for their own gain but with a view to inspiring others. They have probably also helped to secure the future of the National Media Museum. No amount of worthy TUC marches could achieve as much.