Six weeks after voting to accept a pay offer from Picturehouse Cinemas, workers at the Ritzy are being faced with over 20 potential redundancies. Arjun Mahadevan reports.
Update, 2 November: Ritzy management have since withdrawn the threatened redundancies.
On Thursday 23 October staff at The Ritzy cinema in Brixton, South London were called into a meeting where they thought they were to be officially introduced to their new General Manager. The reason for the meeting was in fact a lot more sinister. Staff were there to be informed of more than 20 potential redundancies at The Ritzy.
A letter to BECTU, the union workers at The Ritzy are members of, from Gary Smith, a well-known union buster on behalf of Picturehouse Cinemas, outlined the reasons behind the proposed redundancies: “To improve the consistency of customer service, reduce management time spent on recruitment, training, HR and Payroll processes, reduce staffing costs and remove the reliance on zero hours contracts”.
The company proposes axing the positions of 2 managers, all 8 supervisors, 3 technical staff and numerous Front of House and Bar staff – but only at The Ritzy. Staff have been told that their jobs will be renamed and that a certain number of people will be selected to reapply for the jobs they already have, while the remaining staff will be laid off.
It is clear that these proposals are not about customer service but a cynical attempt by a bitter management to hit back at workers who’ve fought hard against them in order to win a better wage. I spoke to Paul Antony, a member of Bar staff at The Ritzy following the announcement of the redundancies:
Everyone is confused and angry. The rationale behind the planned changes seems like a blatant attack on the workforce for our strike action, rather than a means to improve fluidity of business and customer service like they claim. It is a nonsensical farce. Head office couldn’t even be bothered to come and explain their plans to us in person, rather leave us in the dark with unanswered questions about the future of our jobs.
Despite management’s reasons for the potential redundancies, The Ritzy remains the most successful and profitable cinema for Picturehouse, with no evidence of any financial problems cited. The fact that no other cinema is to face a similar ‘restructuring’ reinforces this. It just doesn’t add up. As the ‘A Living Wage for Ritzy Staff’ Facebook page states:
This is nothing short of a scandalous provocation which is set out to undermine a years worth of hard work to gain a bare minimum wage rise, nothing short of backhanded corruption of statistics, nothing short of pure vindictive retaliation because we the workers showed that with determination and collectivity, we could effect change to make our lives that tiny bit more comfortable.
Throughout 2014, workers at The Ritzy cinema had been engaged in a pay dispute. After long negotiations and 13 strike days over 5 months, the union and management reached an agreement. In a ballot which closed on 12 September members voted, by 35 votes in favour and 4 against, to accept the proposal, despite it falling short of their initial demand for the London Living Wage (currently £8.80 per hour). The agreement to be implemented at The Ritzy included an immediate rise from £7.35 per hour to £8.00 backdated to October 2013 with supervisors to retain their differential of 50p an hour. Also included in the offer were a number of future pay increases equating to a 26% pay rise over 3 years, leading to further talks in June 2016.
However, as Willy Donaghy, BECTU Arts & Entertainment Division Supervisory Official, highlights in a letter to Picturehouse management, there are five areas where the proposed redundancies may be in breach of the agreement won by the workers and signed by both parties:
– Working patterns for existing staff will be maintained
– The intention is not to reduce flexibility significantly
– The company welcomes the commitment from the negotiating team to work in partnership with Picturehouse management team to restore good will
– The Ritzy management and BECTU are committed to working together in the future for the benefit of the cinema, staff and customers
– Through natural wastage the number of shifts will be reviewed and some vacancies might not be filled
The accepted offer, and subsequent agreement, were the result of a strong and vibrant campaign led by the workers who fought tirelessly, making national headlines and severely damaging Picturehouse’s reputation as an ethical independent cinema chain in the process. The campaign led workers at other cinemas including Hackney, Clapham and Greenwich to take note and look to unionise their workplaces. However, news of potential redundancies will surely be used as a tool to break this spirit at these other cinemas and an attempt to stop them from unionising through fear.
Workers at The Ritzy were already aware of management’s readiness undermine their agreement, when on 13 October it was announced that the company had abused the wording of the contract to avoid backdating pay. This attempt was made on the basis that ‘bonus pay’ was to be taken out of backpay. A statement on the campaign’s Facebook page responded:
At every single point of this campaign we have fought hard to make the company realise that we do not recognise bonus as pay and have consistently rejected any deal which includes bonuses. On several occasions we have made it 100% clear to senior management that we the workers deserve better PAY and nothing less.
After this move was disputed, management backed down claiming a ‘misunderstanding’, and the original offer of backpay as stated in the agreement was paid in full on 22 October.
Public support for the Ritzy is still strong, and the embers of their fight are still glowing. On the same day as the redundancies were announced, Russell Brand was in discussion with Owen Jones in a GuardianLive event streamed to Picturehouse Cinemas across the country, including Screen 1 at The Ritzy. During the discussion, Owen Jones was wearing one of the Living Wage t-shirts designed by Ritzy staff for their campaign. Displays of solidarity like this will add to the pressure on Picturehouse management to reconsider their proposals. Public support is essential, combined with the workers’ readiness to continue the fight, not only for their pay, but for their jobs.
BECTU members at The Ritzy have called on supporters to show solidarity with them by emailing Alastair Oatey and Lyn Goleby, the company directors with messages of complaint about their appalling treatment of their staff. You can email: firstname.lastname@example.org and Lyn.email@example.com to make your complaints.