On 11th April, the workers of the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton went on strike .
Their action gathered support from celebrities including Ken Loach, Mark Thomas and Terry Gilliam, who asked Monty Python fans to watch the live show at other cinemas.
The strikers plight was reported in the Brixton Bugle which Picturehouse, the owners of the cinema, banned from being distributed on the premises.
The coverage the strikers gained from the BBC and the front page of the Observer was harder to censor.
What was it they were asking for to gain such media attention?
They just wanted to be paid the living wage.
The living wage is not a new campaign. It was first sought in the mining communities of the UK to guarantee enough money for clothing, housing and food.
In 1999, the first National Minimum Wage was set at £3.60 for workers over the age of 22. From the 1st October that will rise to £6.50, an increase of 80.5% over 16 years, which is only impressive until you realise that the minimum wage has been rapidly lagging behind the rate inflation for the last six years, in real terms becoming less.
And that’s a worrying issue in a city where the average rent is twice the amount than that of the rest of the UK. Throw in luxuries like food and travel costs, and there’s not much left at the end of the month.
In 2001, a group of East London parents began the modern campaign for the living wage, frustrated that the minimum wage meant they could not afford time for family life. This has now led to the founding of The Living Wage Foundation, an initiate of the Citizens UK.
The current rate is £8.80 for London and £7.65 elsewhere. Quite a jump from the minimum wage. For employers, the results have not been limited to the balance sheet, over 80% of businesses believe that paying the wage had enhanced the quality of their staff’s work and absenteeism had dropped by 25%.
The Greater London Authority including Boris Johnson have vocally backed it, stopping short of enforcing it. With benefits to businesses as well as to employees, it’s hard to see the reasons not to pay.
Zone 1 in London is a hive of consumers eating and shopping. Retailers and restaurants line the streets employing thousands of people. Being zone 1, the travel costs are among the highest in London, yet these businesses expect staff to pay these costs from a meager wage leaving them, if anything, with little in their wage packets at the end of the month.
Multinational retailer Arcadia group, owners of high street icons Topshop and Topman, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins and BHS, reported profit of £481m last year. A slump compared to the previous year. Topshop in London pay their lowest paid staff £7.12 per hour, well over a pound shy of the living wage. For a worker paying the average rent and travelling from zone 1-4, this would leave them with less than £85 per week for food and bills. There’s little left to cover social activities, saving for a holiday, driving lessons or contributing towards a pension. Arcadia’s CEO Phillip Green is currently worth £3.2billion and commutes to London from his Monaco home by private jet.
The Living Wage campaign isn’t just a UK phenomenon. US fast food workers went on strike to raise their wage to $15 (£9.23) per hour. Last year the top 1% in the United States earned nearly 20% of all the available income, providing the biggest wealth gap since the 1920s. The money is there to be paid, but it’s not fairly distributed.
On September 13th the strikers at the Ritzy announced that they would be going back to work. They had won a 26% payrise but stated that they haven’t given up their fight for the Living Wage. Picturehouse has been swallowed up by a larger chain, Cineworld, the Ritzy employee voices alone weren’t enough to enforce the change across the group as a whole.
Although they state they’re unable to pay their staff a living wage, Picturehouse are able to open a expensive new cinemas in leafy East Dulwich and recently announced they will be opening an eight screen art house cinema in the Trocadero on Piccadilly Circus. This will create dozens more jobs, but they’ll all be paying below the London living wage. Stephen Mark Wiener stepped down as CEO of Cineworld plc in February this year. His annual income was £676,000 including £197,000 bonus, over 40 times the pay that the Ritzy strikers have just won.