Reflections on a rowdy picket line: The July 20th Ritzy strike

Yup, that is a damn big banner.

Cinema workers have been some of the leading lights of the class struggle in London. A primarily young workforce, they've been active in forming unions and going on strike. How are we, as radicals, to relate to this new wave of struggle that encompasses both self-organisation and trade unionism?

Last weekend I went down to the picket line at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton. The line, as always, was spirited and well-supported. It was the workers' 11th strike, although this time it was different. Whereas in previous strikes management had wisely chosen to leave the cinema closed for the duration, this time they decided to keep it open. In response, the workers called for a mass picket, encouraging “hundreds” of people to turn out in a mass show of support.

In terms of numbers, I'd say we accomplished that. There was an absolutely huge banner with at least 25 people – as best I could tell, a majority of them Ritzy staff – holding it up, a samba band, and at least a dozen pickets on each of the three entrances. On top of this, a crowd of at least 75 had gathered in the square in front of the cinema to enjoy the band and the general commotion.

Management's response was interesting. My impression is that they didn't really expect such a show of force. They had some extra security guards, but clearly not enough. They also had their own leaflet to give out to customers who crossed the line, a sad little number basically saying how everything was just hunky-dory for the workers at the Ritzy. As for staff, people had been shipped in from head office. My understanding is that these were unpaid volunteers, mostly from the ranks of management, but I can't confirm that.

Also, oddly, management erected corrugated steel barricades around most of the seating area in front of the cinema. Everyone was pretty perplexed as to why in the world they did this as it made our job of picketing infinitely easier. My impression, again, is that management were expecting a loud picket and they thought the barricades would help block sound. If that was the case, I doubt it worked.

Where it got interesting was on the entrances. They were well-covered. On the side entrance, we were two people deep and there was absolutely no way anyone was getting through without having a chat with us first. And we were up front with people; this was no half-arsed picket line. People were asked not to cross in no uncertain terms.

Some people pushed through; some crossed after giving some of the most tortured excuses and explanations I've ever heard. A sizeable percentage were either turned away or went in for a refund and came back out. What is worth noting here is that no one at our entrance was a Ritzy worker (although I think a majority were anarchists).

About an hour or so into the picket proper, the police showed up. In force. Police vans lined up along the street as the cops came to police the picket lines and the protest going on in front of the cinema. Their appearance was apparently precipitated by a group of picketers who managed to sneak inside to create a bit of a ruckus at the front of the cinema – although I think that was more of a straw that broke the camel's back rather than an acute reason.

In any case, after about 20 minutes of the cops being there, someone who I'm pretty sure is a Ritzy worker (they could have been a BECTU official, but I don't think so) asked us to leave the entrances as staff were worried that it might give the cops an excuse to crack down. We did. And, anyway, by that time the film had started and the majority of people who were going to cross the line had already done so.

So, that's the report back from the picket itself. However, I think the whole incident raises some interesting and important questions for us as radicals.

I think where we need to begin is to understand that what's happening at the Ritzy and, to a lesser extent in other London cinemas, is a return to militant trade unionism. 1 When you talk to the workers they have nothing but positive things to say about BECTU - I even know some anarchist cinema workers who praise them as a union. Indeed, one journalist I've talked to over the course of these strike has referred to Ritzy workers as part of the “new face of British trade unionism”.

Where the traditional TUC unions have mustered up a few mass one-day strikes as of late, most people involved seemed to understand that these strikes are pretty tokenistic. Not so with the Ritzy workers: their strike days are in the double digits, they organise rowdy marches through the streets of central London, and they've taken their pickets to other cinemas in the same chain. UNISON they are not.

The second point to consider is the role of the police. Once the police showed up at the Ritzy, the numbers on the entrances thinned and, as we saw, it eventually resulted in voluntarily abdicating the central role of a picket line: to man 2 the entrances and do your damnedest to stop people going in.

And, really, it should have been predictable. To wage a struggle as solidly and militantly as the workers at the Ritzy have, it's only a matter of time before management call out the pigs.

So what do these two points mean for us as radicals?

I think, in relation to point 1, it's a call for us to build relationships with militant workers. London's cinema workers – at least in my experience – are more than happy to build relationships with organised radical groups.

Yes, we need to get good at talking to others in our own workplace, but there's nothing wrong with starting practical conversations with other workers who may be in the heat of their own struggles. We don't need to make it political – after all, we're not there to sell papers – but while taking our lead from the workers themselves, we should being willing to push conversations in a more radical direction focusing on escalation and spreading struggle.

To sound a bit vanguardist, there's a good possibility that, as labour radicals, we're going to have more experience with confrontational picket lines, for example. The thing is, though, that experience won't get passed on via a facebook post or a well-worded leaflet. It needs to come from relationships and it needs to happen face-to-face.

As for the police and picket lines, one option is to embrace it. After all, striking workers have a lot more to lose if they get accused of intimidation on a picket line. On the other hand, as one of my fellow-anarchists asked me on the line, “Isn't it bit substitutionalist to block the entrance of workplace that's not your own while it's workers are out front dancing to a samba line?”

Workers do learn on their feet and I'm sure that Ritzy workers will have more of a plan if the police show up again during a strike. However, as radicals, we could be useful in helping them to prepare for those eventualities in advance. We don't need to lecture and we don't need to presume, but we can help in strategising and preparing for management's inevitable response to growing militancy, whatever that response may be.

And, just as importantly, whether through a union or not we all want to be pushing for this level of militancy in own workplaces. Should that come to pass, how we navigate these problems will be all the more important.

  • 1. For the casual reader, I use the term “militant” here intentionally as a means to distinguish between the bureaucratic, reformist trade unionism of most the TUC unions and what appears to be the situation of BECTU in London. BECTU seems to have a much larger space for rank-and-file initiative and involvement as well as a willingness to push the bounds of labour law. These are good things. However, BECTU still falls short of radical unionism inasmuch as it still seeks to mediate between management and workers and, thus, inhibits the self-organisation and revolutionary potential of the organised working class.
  • 2. I don't like “man” as a term here, but I couldn't find anything else suitable. Suggestions welcome.


Chilli Sauce
Jul 21 2014 20:56

Write up from the Guardian here:

And, again, I reiterate my point: most people who post comments under articles on the internet are humanity's biggest a**holes.

Tek No More
Jul 23 2014 05:43

If you are gonna tell us what happened, explain, what was rowdy, I actually think the picketers are lively and engaging, and refus to be static. As for ruckus describe it, it detracts from what is happening, it's really immature. You talk about how you don't wish to patronise the strikers, but unfortunately you do.... The word that seems to be missing here is "solidarity'. How can we support and link up with these workers etc. And "we don't need to make it political" what a load of tripe! What is the police role then? And when management start collaborating with them, what will you say to the workers.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 23 2014 06:17

I'll be honest here, Tek, it slightly feels like you missed the point of the blog.

Jul 23 2014 08:14

Yeah, Tek, I'm not exactly clear on what your criticisms are here (apart from maybe you'd have preferred it to be more descriptive?).. Like, when you say

what was rowdy, I actually think the picketers are lively and engaging, and refus to be static

I think that is what Chilli would call 'rowdy'.. Like both of you, I also thought it was pretty cool.. it was nice to be on a picket where you actually tried to stop people getting through (I think someone mentioned on a recent thread about a seeing a picketer actually hug a scab as they went in! So the Ritzy strike was a big change in comparison)..

And "we don't need to make it political" what a load of tripe! What is the police role then? And when management start collaborating with them, what will you say to the workers.

Again, before throwing insults around about who's talking 'tripe', I think it would be best to check you're both using the same definition of political. Like, I would say that the Ritzy staff probably are talking about what role the police played at the last strike and how to deal with it.. if I was in that conversation I'd probably say that management will be asking the police for their co-operation (and getting it) and that's something we need to strategise for..

I prob wouldn't see that as a political approach but a strategical one (and politics is something that develops out of strategy, so going from concrete situations to abstract principles/concepts); to me, a political approach to me would start with by explaining the role of the police in capitalist society, the role of the state etc and try to win people over to your concrete strategies by winning your abstract political arguments..

Now, I don't know which one you believe in doing or which one you consider political.. but without wanting to speak for Chilli, I think his idea of political means the latter rather than 'don't talk about/criticise the police'..

Chilli Sauce
Jul 23 2014 15:23

Yeah, Ed nailed it.

Basically, I actually think anarchists are really good at being political - I don't doubt you or I or Ed could make a watertight case why the police are class enemies. Those sort of conversations (and I include myself in this) are our comfort zone. Where I think we falter is on practicalities and relating to non-radical workers/militants.

So, while it's great to make a political point about the police being shit, what's far harder (but far more effective in my opinion) is earning the respect and trust of those militants to help them come up with a plan for how to deal with management inevitably calling the police in the face of a successful picket line.

Also, on this bit:

As for ruckus describe it, it detracts from what is happening, it's really immature.

Are your saying my understanding of "ruckus" is immature or that the folks who snuck in to cause disruption were immature? Or that my not describing, in detail, the "ruckus" they caused is immature?

Jul 23 2014 17:02

Thanks for writing this up, by the way, I did hope to be there but had flooding problems in my flat which I had to sort out (also of course I am very reluctant to go south of the river…)

I take it, though, that the cinema was able to operate with scabs. That is a shame. Does anyone know how effective the boycott was? I.e. how many empty seats were there?

Chilli Sauce
Jul 23 2014 17:58

Yeah, I thought about that as well, Steven. I have no idea if the picket began before the scabs arrived or not or, tactically, whether that was the intention.

In relation to the boycott, it's part of the national boycott they've called of Picturehouse. In general, I'm pretty wary of boycotts (and especially of national chains), but this thread probably isn't the place to be strategizing publicly...

Jul 31 2014 08:46

Good piece Chilli, cheers.