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.
- 2I don't like “man” as a term here, but I couldn't find anything else suitable. Suggestions welcome.