the media and entertainment union
a sector of Prospect
Rio cinema staff to strike on 25 May

11 May 2016

Staff at The Rio, one of London’s most prominent independent cinemas, have voted today to take strike action. Seventy per cent of BECTU members took part in the ballot and 93% cast their vote for industrial action. Strike action will take place on Wednesday 25 May.

"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," said national official, Sofie Mason.

Today's decision on strike action follows a long battle over union recognition and pay with staff now facing cuts in staffing levels.

Management threaten restructure from 1 June

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.

"Staff want change but not change that rips the heart out of The Rio," concluded Sofie Mason.

Union members have launched the SOS Rio campaign and 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.

Background to the dispute

It is widely acknowledged that this much-loved charity has barely survived over the last seven years under the leadership of Rio Chair Patrick Lyons. In 2013 the Board claimed The Rio was close to insolvency. It was saved through public donations of around £4,000 and the staff agreeing a pay cut of 10% over 7 months, saving the company approximately £10,000. This was an exceptional sacrifice by staff earning barely above the minimum wage. Staff expected the Board to move forward from this embarrassment but there was no change and the cinema limped on.

Staff, therefore, set about getting unionised and took the Board to the CAC twice where they won collective union recognition with BECTU. In October 2015 they submitted a pay claim. None of the staff had received a pay rise since 2012 and Rio ushers were some of the worst paid in London on £6.91 per hour. They also sought repayment of the 10% wage cut from 2013 so that the company could move forward on a more professional footing rather than relying on hand-outs and cut-backs from its own poorly paid staff.

By January 2016 no progress had been made as the Board were only willing to offer a pay rise to the lowest paid staff. The Board then decided yet again that they could not afford any pay rise at all and took the offer off the table. BECTU staff invited management to ACAS but talks collapsed in March. Balloting began. A local Hackney resident set up an online petition ( “Support Rio Cinema Staff”) and the Evening Standard followed with a quote from former usher and rising star Zawe Ashton*.


For further information please contact BECTU national official, Sofie Mason

*Full supporting statement from actor, director and playwright Zawe Ashton

“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.

It's 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 in to 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."

Query about this article? Contact us.