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20 December 2016

Striking workers are showing that fighting and winning is possible

Resistance is growing in low-wage and precarious sectors.

By Michael Chessum

This will be a Christmas of strikes. After an overtime ban and days of industrial action this month, which crippled Southern Rail, drivers will strike again in the early new year. Post Office workers are planning a five-day walkout which will heavily disrupt the Christmas post. On Christmas Day and Boxing Day, British Airways cabin crew will be on strike, joined by baggage handlers and check-in staff from Friday. These disputes are not yet a return to the big anti-austerity protests of 2011, let alone another winter of discontent, but they are not a coincidence either.

Train drivers and postal workers are workforces with a long history of union organisation – but 2016 has also witnessed a series of industrial disputes among low-wage and precarious service industry workers. When Deliveroo proposed entirely abolishing hourly pay in favour of payments per delivery this summer, drivers staged a dramatic strike, with some success. UberEATS drivers followed suit a few weeks later.

For a whole week in late November, Windrush Square in Brixton was a scene of agitation. Picket lines dozens strong kept vigil outside the Ritzy Cinema, with flags, banners and chants, as workers struck for the London Living Wage and increases in sick pay and maternity pay. They even made a large colourful paper dragon to entertain children disappointed by cancelled screenings of the new Harry Potter film. On Friday they were on strike again, this time filling the square with Christmas carols.   

Strikes are not new to the Ritzy. The current dispute comes at the end of a two year no-strike agreement brokered in June 2014 when management agreed to an immediate pay increase to £9.10 an hour. The difference now is that the strikes are spreading across Picturehouse cinemas in London. The Hackney Picturehouse has seen a strike running in parallel, and BECTU, the union that organises the chain, is now balloting at Picturehouse Central, the flagship outlet in Piccadilly Circus. Picturehouse only opened in Crouch End a few weeks ago, but it is already home to a growing union branch.

“Workers in other sites approach us all the time,” says Kelly Rogers, a bar worker at the Ritzy. She and other union reps have found themselves overwhelmed with support and interest from other groups of workers, and have travelled the country speaking to fellow cinema workers in cities as far away as York. Manchester Trades Council has given £200 to the dispute, as have numerous other union branches across the country.

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“The idea that you can’t organise precarious workers is totally ridiculous,” says Rogers. “People have organised in unions for as long as workplaces have existed, and under much worse conditions than we face. The workers that we meet in McDonalds are desperate to be organised”. Ritzy workers have teamed up with the Bakers’ Union BFAWU and the ‘Hungry for Justice’ campaign, touring round local fast food chains and take-aways. The two sets of workers met each other after being invited to speak on a panel about precarious work at The World Transformed festival in Liverpool during Labour Party conference.

Workers at the Ritzy are well aware of the role they play in giving confidence to other trade unionists. Losing several days’ pay for an increase of 65p an hour may not seem that appealing a prospect – but for Agata Adamowicz, an usher, the sense of a “growing movement” keeps morale high. “When you talk to someone on the picket line, they start to question their own conditions and pay”, she says. Like other Ritzy workers, Adamowicz describes her motivation for being involved in the union in terms of “responsibility” as well as in terms of being able to pay the rent.

For Holly Fishman Crook and Sophie Archer, the union is also a key part of what makes the Ritzy a community worth staying in – “a place where people care about each other,” as Archer puts it. “I’d never worked in a place that had such an active union before”, says Fishman Crook, who started working at the Ritzy when she was trying to break into acting, and is now a union rep. The precarious nature of the work means that workers form bonds relatively quickly. “Your 9 to 5 friends aren’t around late on a Sunday night to hang out,” says  Archer. Despite the stereotype that they are all students or looking for a way out, staff tell me that some workers have been at the Ritzy for 30 years.

In workplaces like this, when someone is always working, basic things like scheduling union meetings are fraught with difficulty. The union branch’s answer is to meet between 10pm and 1am on Sunday nights – but even this excludes some members. As Kelly Rogers tells me: “When we’re on strike is the only time we’re all together.” If disputes like the Ritzy represent a new kind of trade unionism, it is in the ability of determined activists to turn the precarity of work to their advantage. Shift patterns are unsociable and vary, but this also means that, for Rogers, “if I put my mind to it, I could speak to every member in a week.”

If you wanted to find easy answers to how young precarious workers in 2016 are managing to break through and organise successful living wage campaigns, you might expect to talk about importance of social media. Having a Facebook group for workers across the country is a useful fixture – “it means that people don’t forget about you”, Rogers says. But overall, the density and activity of union members, and the number of likes on the strike’s Facebook page, is down to much more traditional methods – putting on events, talking to people and convincing them face to face.

Almost a million people in Britain are now employed on zero-hours contracts and strikes like those at the Ritzy are, for the moment, a drop in the ocean when compared to the growth of precarious work and the gig economy. But what they demonstrate, along with like those which occurred at Deliveroo and UberEATS this summer, is that fighting and winning is possible – even, and maybe especially, among these hyper-exploited workers. If the trade union movement can combine the energy of these new disputes with an increasing mood of resistance at its base, 2017 could be the year that workers fought back.