Here at the Brixton Pound we are used to fielding questions about the Ritzy. Until the last few weeks most have been about why the B£ is not accepted by the cinema, something which dismays and surprises many in equal measure. Recently however this has been replaced by something else which, upon becoming wider public knowledge, also dismays and surprises people in Brixton – that the Ritzy is not a London Living Wage (LLW) employer. After several fruitless years of negotiation with Picturehouse, which owns the Ritzy among other cinemas, staff overwhelmingly voted in favour of striking, the first of which took place on Friday 11th April, and the second of which will follow on Friday 18th.
We’ve been asked a lot about this of late and we’re glad that we have, because it demonstrates that people understand the link between the Brixton Pound and what this issue is about: economic justice. So when we’re asked the question, “should the Ritzy pay its staff the LLW?”, our answer is adamant: absolutely yes. We won’t repeat the arguments that evidently show that the economic, social and moral sums all add up. They’re freely available and not exclusive to any particular political leaning. Our take on it is simple: profitable companies should pay staff a living wage. So what makes this one company any different?
Special characteristics mark out the Ritzy. Located opposite Lambeth Town Hall on Windrush Square, it takes on and enjoys the trappings associated with being ‘a local institution’. Indeed it was Lambeth Council which stepped in to rescue the cinema from demolition in the 1970s, and later assistance from the Brixton City Challenge which lifted it to the splendour cinema goers enjoy today. For the few people who don’t know where the cinema is, public signposts at several points in Brixton indicate the way. Recently, both of the shortlisted bids to run the former ice rink site on Pope’s Road proposed a collaboration with the Ritzy to run film screenings, listing the cinema as evidence of engaging with ‘local partners’.
It’s in this context that people perceive the Ritzy, one that almost makes people forget that it is a business, never mind a corporate one. And this is where the distinction must be made: this is a Picturehouse issue, not a Ritzy one. Even though we can’t spend the B£ there, we love the Ritzy. We love the film board that displays marriage proposals and messages of support for the Brixton Soup Kitchen. We love the interesting cinema programme it runs. We love the upstairs exhibitions and concerts, the terrace, the immersive cinema events, the kids club and even the pram jam at 11am. And on all of these things we love about the cinema are the fingerprints of the staff, who beyond being good at their jobs never fail to be friendly, knowledgeable, and as was evident throughout their strike on Friday are an energetic, talented and committed bunch. The argument that the LLW brings about a better workforce does not apply here. But that does not mean they do not deserve a wage that reflects the cost of living London.
We’d like to think that if they had the power to, Ritzy management would pay their staff the LLW. Likewise, we believe that like almost 300 businesses in Brixton, they would willingly accept the B£. The sad truth however is that the cinema is run according to the principles of most corporate businesses, where salaries at the top rise and at the bottom stagnate, where short term gain trumps long-term sustainability for the business and the environment in which it operates, and where staff are largely seen as expendable as opposed to an asset.
One banner at the strike asked the rhetorical question, “where are you Mooky Greidinger”, in reference to the CEO of Cineworld, which owns Picturehouse. The likelihood is that he has never heard of the Ritzy, perhaps not even Brixton, and less so the privileged position the cinema enjoys in the area. If it is on his radar at all it will be as a series of numbers, of which only one really matters: the bottom line. On Friday we were proud that Ritzy staff showed that they are not mere numbers, and we hope that they are soon in receipt of pay that not only reflects the cost of living in an increasingly expensive city, but also their contribution to the cinema’s success.
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