The Ritzy cinema workers' campaign shows the necessity of a living wage. Photo: Getty
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For dignity in work, a prosperous economy and a just society, living wages are vital

The Ritzy Living Wage campaign is an inspiring example of that call to action for raising wages.

"Would you like fair trade coffee or normal?" a barista once asked me.

Standing in a desolate service station, I had more reason than usual to despair at what is deemed normal.

"Err, fair trade please."

"That’s an extra 15p, is that ok?"

I paid up. But it was not ok.

The message was clear: if you want fairness, you’re going to pay for it. Because that’s not in our business model: "normal" business is bleeding people dry.

I was reminded of this recently when the successful culmination of a year of campaigning for a living wage by staff at Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, south London, was followed promptly by a redundancy notice from the management at Picturehouse Cinemas.

Ritzy workers described it as a "vindictive retaliation", and it's easy to see why.

A year of leafleting, strikes, awareness-raising, and negotiations had come down to this: a living wage for those who make it through the 90 day 'consultation period' which will leave at least 20 of the 93 staff out of a job. The huge public backlash and calls for a boycott has now resulted in a dramatic U-turn from Picturehouse management: announcing that plans to sack staff have been shelved.

Both instances – a multinational coffee chain and an art-house cinema group now owned by one of the biggest (and growing) cinema businesses in Europe – represent a paradox. In both, a thin façade of a commitment to equity is belied by a refusal to genuinely embed the principle of paying workers a wage on which they can maintain a decent standard of living.

In that dichotomy lies the problem, and also the solution. The pressure which businesses feel – to be seen to be doing the right thing – is already there: and turning it up is the key.

The Living Wage is calculated on the basis of the minimum a person needs to cover basic living costs. Across the UK it’s set at £7.65 an hour, while in London it’s £8.80. For the majority of people on minimum wage around the UK that’s an extra £1.15 an hour. Not much, but it can make a huge difference to people’s lives.

The cost of living crisis across the UK is acute, with low pay and stagnant wages, rising living costs, and welfare cuts forcing people to use food banks. The Trussell Trust reported a 163 per cent surge in emergency food parcels in 2013-14: up from 347,000 to 913,000.

A large proportion of these people are in work – just some of the 5.2m people now in low-paid jobs (up 250,000 from last year). Raising wages is a fundamental lever in tackling in-work poverty and boosting the economy.

The Ritzy Living Wage campaign is an inspiring example of that call to action for raising wages. The workers received huge local support, with high-profile figures queuing up to give them their backing, from Eric Cantona to Monty Python’s Terry Jones, Russell Brand, Owen Jones, Will Self and directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

As the Ritzy workers have shown, campaigning for the living wage effectively can not only bring direct results: it has a deeper normative effect across society.

Curzon Cinemas, which has been the subject of a similar dispute over wages for the past year, has just agreed to pay its staff the living wage. The fallout from the Picturehouse debacle is not hermetically sealed: the Ritzy staff’s fight may be more important than they know.

This was mirrored in Scotland just this week. There has been a longstanding campaign to get Celtic Football Club to adopt the living wage, led by the Celtic Trust. Despite a petition and widespread support, the club has not yet been amenable to the idea. But then suddenly, with no campaign, no pressure, no petition, their Scottish Premier League rival Hearts announced that it will become a living wage employer for its 150+ staff.

"Hearts supporters did not need to start a petition to get the club to pay the living wage, they just realised it was the right thing to do," Peter Kelly, Co-Chair of the Scottish Living Wage Campaign, told me. "The more employers who sign up, the harder and harder it is for other employers to say that they cannot pay the living wage."

"We believe that making the business case (which is undeniable) and bringing the voices of low paid workers to the fore are our best campaigning tools. We also know that increasing support and awareness within the general public, especially customers/stakeholders, is a really important aspect of the campaign."

Football clubs south of the border are also coming under scrutiny, with Arsenal being urged to become a living wage employer by Islington Council – the first local authority in the UK to do so.

And the living wage is taking hold beyond local authorities and universities, which now represent 103 and 150 institutions paying the living wage, respectively. Some of the largest corporations in the world are signing up like Nestle, which employs over 8,000 workers.

Effective targeted campaigns work: but the ripples of progress they create are even more powerful.

Before the National Minimum Wage Act came into force in 1999, it was common to hear the same lines of argument which opponents of the living wage put forward. But the NMW is now not only enshrined legally, but accepted normatively across the political spectrum: it is a principle which, even if it was not in law, would be seen as necessary and desirable.

For dignity in work, for a prosperous economy and for a just society, living wages are a necessity. Wages which reflect basic living costs should never be a luxury, they should be "normal".

Luke Massey is a freelance journalist and Deputy Editor at Brixton Blog (and its sister print-paper Brixton Bugle).
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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