The Ritzy cinema workers' campaign shows the necessity of a living wage. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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).
Getty
Show Hide image

The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.