‘PAY all at least he London Living Wage! No sackings! No cuts to hours! Affordable cinema tickets for working class families! Save our community cinema!’
These are the demands of cinema workers at the Rio in Dalston, Hackney, east London. They are on strike on Wednesday 25 May. Actor, director and playwright Zawe Ashton, who worked at the Rio as a teen said: ‘Keep the warmth and independent spirit of The Rio alive!’
The Rio Cinema is an independent cinema that screens arthouse films as well as the latest blockbusters. It is a beautiful art deco building that dates back to 1915, over 100 years! Cinema workers say that they are fighting for the soul of the Rio, as the management are attempting to force through ‘restructuring’, which means sackings.
So they have launched their SOS campaign.
Bectu, the union which represents the cinema workers, national official Sofie Mason said: ‘Staff want change but not change that rips the heart out of The Rio.’ The vote for strike action was overwhelming. Seventy per cent of Bectu members took part in the ballot and 93% cast their vote for industrial action.
Sofie Mason added: ‘What started out as a simple pay dispute has turned into a passionate ideological battle over the soul of one of the last community cinemas in London.’ The decision to strike follows a long battle over union recognition and pay with staff now facing cuts to staffing levels. The management of the Rio Cinema have threatened a complete ‘restructure’ from June 1st.
Bectu said: ‘Last month management burst into a flurry of activity that they claim they had been planning all along. Thanks to the strong stand by union members, back wages from 2013 were finally repaid. But management also claimed they had no choice but to cut staff in order to pay the remaining staff better wages.
‘For years Rio staff have been calling for more competent leadership but this response was simply to shoot the messenger. Management say they are not targeting union activists but it is their posts that are being closed with no suitable alternative on offer. The proposed staff restructure, despite offering a higher hourly rate of pay, is set to cut hours and therefore cut salaries in real terms. High technical and customer service standards, for which The Rio is renowned, will be compromised and investment in the community will be marginalised.’
Union members in launching the ‘SOS Rio campaign’ will be striking for:
• The immediate withdrawal of the threat of compulsory redundancies due to take effect on 1 June.
• The immediate withdrawal of the current restructure.
• A commitment to try to find a solution that retains the staff and the high technical and customer service standards for which The Rio is renowned.
• A detailed five-year plan from the Board on how they intend to grow the cinema as a community resource for low-income families.
• A demonstrable commitment to a style of management that maximises openness, transparency and respect.
• A pay rise for all and the simple courtesy of paying the lowest paid at least the London Living Wage.
Actor, director and playwright Zawe Ashton said: ‘I spent seven of the best years of my life working at the Rio Cinema, I still have it saved in my phone as “Work”. As a cinema-obsessed teen it was THE dream job and what I learned in my time there was that working in a cinema goes beyond serving popcorn and tearing tickets.
‘The Rio is one of the last bastions of the community in Dalston specifically and East London at large. Its doors aren’t only open to those who want to catch the latest indie offering but also people in the community who have a classic matinee catered just for them, or the local schools who bring young people to the cinema sometimes for the first time as part of the affordable after-school screening programme, or the parents and their babies who come to the specialist mother and baby screenings or the wanderers – the people from the local area who want to come in and sit somewhere warm where friendly staff will serve them an affordable cup of tea and talk with them.
‘Being a member of staff at the Rio means playing a part in upholding a community, that with regeneration breathing down its neck, can and will dissolve without places like The Rio. I went there as a child with play centre after school and had some of my first cinematic outings which shaped some of my earliest memories of cinema.
‘When I worked at The Rio, talking with people about the film after the screening or recommending further watching on the back of a programmed film became second nature and part of the job. Talking with the experienced and creative staff about cinema broadened my understanding in all aspects of film.
‘The conversations throughout the building about film and filmmaking and the arts at large went on long after we had shut the doors to the screen, and that is what independent cinema is about. Keeping the conversation going. Gathering like-minded individuals to keep rooting for the work that exists outside of the commercial box.
‘That’s what the community of my beloved Hackney has always been about, about keeping its doors open, not closed to its residents and their specific needs. Hackney’s multifariousness should be reflected in the businesses that populate it. The staff at the Rio have always been hired, in my experience, with distinctiveness counting for them, not against.
‘Many of the people working there in every capacity are creatives in their own right, activists, film makers, artists, performance artists, animators, writers – who possess an openness and individuality that reflects the independent spirit of The Rio. I know that’s why I was hired and why I loved working there so much.
‘I was comfortable in my own skin at work and was encouraged to be by my managers and colleagues. It’s not a commercial cinema AND it has truly kept its independent roots, despite pressure to morph into one of the chain cinemas that take bigger business, but the staff who give so much of themselves to the job and to the wider community still deserve to be paid a wage they can live on.
‘We don’t want to lose them to commercial premises that continue to spring up thick and fast across East London, with the danger of homogenising the eclectic neighbourhood I have grown up in. We want to keep the warmth and heart of The Rio alive, and the heart are the staff.
‘The staff are the heart of the building and I feel so privileged to have worked there.
‘Those seven years gave me so much more of a depth of understanding of the identity and charisma of the neighbourhood where I was born. The residents of Hackney make it one of the most individual, vibrant and enduring boroughs in London. If you love Hackney, if you love cinema, support The Rio staff. They are an unsung source of comfort, unity and originality in the East End.’