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).
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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