Ritzy workers in south London recently went on strike for the Living Wage, but they are by no means unique. Rs21 member, Estelle Cooch, caught up with two workers from Curzon cinemas and asked them to explain why everything is kicking off in the cinema industry.
How did you get from an informal network of organising to eventually gaining BECTU union recognition on 13 January 2014?
Jessica: It was a really long battle that took about a year. The reason we started finding about the union in the first place was that job security was becoming a real issue at work. Lots of people started to be made redundant or lose their jobs quite unnecessarily. We always pushed for more pay, but it was job security that really was the catalyst for people joining the union. I think, you Adam, were the first to actually join the union weren’t you?
Adam: Yes, I joined 2012, early 2013.
Jessica: And by February 2013 the whole of Soho cinema had joined up – that’s 20 cinema workers in total! Then we had to start making friends at the other venues. We already had people we kind of trusted, so we used them to get in touch with other people and it kind of snowballed. Adam- Because some people only had tiny shifts, literally only several hours a week or so or had other jobs so were in other unions. They didn’t want to join the union, but they did want to show their support. Bectu took a great initiative of starting a petition of the workers in support of the living wage and restoring the concessionary rates for customers (cheaper tickets for OAP’s, students, disabled and unemployed people). That petition quickly got 150 people signing it! That’s 70 percent of the workforce!
Jessica: That’s the kind of quick A-B way we got union recognition, but there were lots of other obstacles along the way. Head office set up a staff forum to try to say we don’t need the union- we can deal with this amongst ourselves. The forum got dissolved eventually anyway.
Adam: Because it promised things, like giving us a pay rise, and then when the deadline came they just went quiet. Nothing happened. They might get a new person in, then the new person said we’re not doing that.
Jessica: Exactly – we might get promised things by one person, but then there have been so many changes in personnel this year that when the next person came in we’d be back to square one. When we finally got union recognition it was great, but to be honest a bit of a weird anti-climax! I’ve never really been an activist type, so for us to fight for something, then for it to pay off was really surprising. Although it was just the start of a battle because we’ve had to continue fighting for the living wage, so I think to a certain extent them recognising the union was an attempt to pacify us.
Adam: I thought we’d never actually win it, so once we’d won that I thought we can do anything! It’s worth saying another reason we fought is because we love the place we work, we love the people we work with, we love the customers, so for someone to come down and try to smash the whole ethos, well that made us feel like we didn’t have an option.
How do you coordinate across the different cinemas?
Jessica: Now the union is recognised we can be much more slick and professional. Before, it was very much social and informal organising . We’d meet and get drunk and chat, while now we have a allocated union rep at cinema (bar the brand new one at Victoria). We’ve also all gone through union training. We have a national BECTU rep who helps coordinate our communication across different cinemas. That’s obviously one massive plus of recognising the union – communication is so much easier now.
Zero-hour contracts have been in the news a lot recently. How difficult is it to organise these workers and is there a lot of potential?
Jessica: In my view zero hour contracts aren’t out and out a bad thing, they can provide people with job flexibility. At the moment we’ve been focusing a lot on the Living Wage, but initially zero-hour contracts were more of a big thing. We wanted to give people the choice of being on a fixed contract of a zero-hours one.
Definitely for some people it makes them nervous about joining the union, but for others it pushes them in more, because they feel need that security. And once people started joining the union and others could see the protection they get then they were inclined to join. Lots of people still don’t want to rock the boat or upset management. Also lots of people genuinely didn’t realise what zero-hour contracts actually meant- it’s nothing, there’s no protection there!
Adam: Managers used to try to work with us about hours, but nowadays they can just say “We don’t need you today. Don’t come in.” So we end up relying on the good nature of our managers to keep giving us regular shift patterns. The great thing about the union, therefore, is they can negotiate about any changes pay and conditions. If Curzon say “We don’t need you today”, the union can say “Ok – why? Justify that.” It takes away the personal nature that negotiating hours can have for us.
What are the positives of having someone like comedian Mark Thomas endorse the campaign? Are there any negatives?
Jessica: No negatives at all! He’s amazing – we are in awe of them. He contacted us via twitter in August time last year and he’s been involved in Living Wage campaigns before. We had some meetings with him and he wanted to get involved.
To be honest I do feel if Mark hadn’t got involved I don’t know if we’d be where we are now. We were getting somewhere with the campaign and union membership was growing, but head office weren’t paying attention.
Adam: It was when Mark got involved that head office started to get involved too, but Mark was legally very clever. I don’t know if you saw the Day-glo protest that he did in two cinemas? Well, as part of his “100 Acts of Dissent” tour he and 20 other supporters interrupted the adverts of a film showing with information about the Living Wage campaign and a big banner saying “No Zero-Hour contracts”. But my favourite stunt that he did has to be changing the letters on the canopy on the Soho cinema. He got up really early in the morning and changed the letters that normally show the film titles, to say “Give us fair pay – Recognise the union”.
Head office were furious after that and there was a big investigation. They came down and questioned everyone, had this big interrogation, even though there’s a video of Mark online doing it! Also in the interval of every show on his tour he’d ask people to email our CEO Philip Knatchbull (that’s Philip.email@example.com by the way) and, bear in mind, these were sold-out tours! So Knatchbull would get like 100 emails every night!
Without Mark’s support we would never have been able to sustain the campaign. The only negative having famous people involved in a campaign could bring would be if they were self-serving, but Mark is the complete opposite of that. It’s not about him at all- he’s always listening to us and where we want to take the campaign.
We also got lots of support of other people. One of our regular customers, Fred Paxton, took the initiative himself to start a petition on change.org which now has nearly 7,000 signatures- I know the exact number because I check every day!
Jessica: It was also raised by Owen Jones in the question and answer section of a documentary, the Lottery of Birth, directed by Raoul MartÃnez and Joshua von Prague. It was a bit scary because obviously they’re all there to plug this film and don’t want to piss people off. Stanley Schtinter pulled out of showing his film at Soho Curzon. So much of it has snowballed from Mark Thomas getting involved.
Adam: The famous director Mike Leigh used to always do his private screenings at the cinema. He’s done them at Curzon for years, but then he signed the petition on change.org and withdrew his support for Curzon. He did his most recent private screening for his new film, Mr Turner, at the Odeon. The group SolFed also organised a whole day communication block, so they constantly rang head office until they actually had to close for the day!
Jessica: It was all of these little things that made us realise we were starting to have an effect. When head office closes for the day and sends everyone home, it drew more and more workers into the campaign. For us it’s been such a learning curve, so one of the great things about other activists, like Mark Thomas, getting involved is we can learn so much from them.
What would you say to the Ritzy workers?
Adam: We’re following their example. If the people we work with got nervous, it was useful to be able to point to the Ritzy and say “look, they’ve done it there!” They’ve been on strike several times now, but we never really got involved with them till the strike. Now we communicate with each other and we always go and support them. The community they have around them in Brixton is particularly inspirational as well and they are running a really vibrant campaign.
Jessica: They came to us last year when everything had died down a bit to let us know they were going to kick off their campaign again. One of the best things they’ve done is highlight the Living Wage as a bigger issue. We went to support the cleaners at SOAS when they went on strike recently and there is a lot kicking off in cinemas generally at the moment. We’ve been contacted by workers at the BFI, Everyman cinemas and other Picturehouse cinemas. Interestingly Odeon was one of the first cinemas to get organised and recognise the union. It’s all about supporting each other and providing solidarity whenever pockets of resistance pop up.
Where next for the Curzon campaign?
Jessica: The big meeting is Wednesday 14th May where it’s a final sit down between the union and head office. They last said in February that they said they’d set a deadline for introducing the Living Wage according to a business plan. That date has been pushed back and back, and obviously now it’s May. We’re all very wary of them because they kept doing this last year and giving us any old excuses. So if there isn’t an offer put on the table one option will be to file for dispute.
Adam: We’ll then go to ACAS and begin a strike fund. Bectu will be in charge of taking us down the official route to strike action, but alongside that we will have to keep raising awareness and building the campaign. One of the reasons people have got so angry about this is there’s no evidence that they couldn’t just pay the Living Wage now. It baffles us. The CEO,Philip Knatchbull, can do long interviews in the Financial Times or the Evening Standard talking about expanding Curzon, he can open a new cinema in Victoria but can’t afford to pay his workers more than £7 an hour? If that’s really the case then it’s simply a bad business model!
Jessica: There’s always new jobs at the top. To the workers Curzon already seems very top-heavy. The turnover at the top is crazy, while those of us at the bottom – the general staff- have usually been working there for 5-10 years. We have had three directors of operations in the past year, but loyalty at the bottom doesn’t get any rewards.
They had a phase last year of hiring consultants on six month contracts for thousands of pounds, who will ultimately leave and go and do the same thing elsewhere, whereas we’ll still be here.
Adam: Even some of the managers realise that the way things are at the moment isn’t in line with what the ethos has been in the past. There was a general manager at the Soho cinema who left in November because he’d had enough. He tried to stick up for us but head office were so intransigent. They don’t have an idea of what we do on the ground because they never come to see the cinema at the busiest time.
Jessica: We always get the argument that “Oh well, it’s like that at every company”, but then why is that okay? One manager recently asked me if £1 an hour would even make that much difference. I suppose you think that if you don’t have to count every penny, but for me that extra £1 amounts to half of my rent over the course of a month.
Why are things kicking off in cinemas?
Jessica: Lots of workers do other things on the side, so are musicians or artists so aren’t just working in cinemas for the money. They actually really care about society, which is why restoring concessionary rates has been such a big part of our campaign aswell.
The climate generally seems to be changing at the moment. All it takes is something little, like Ritzy or our campaign, to spark struggles off. I definitely see that from what is happening at Everyman cinemas at the moment. They’re at very early days, they’re on the same wage as us but just having an example of people standing up for themselves is so inspiring and makes you realise you are able to do something about your situation.
Adam: Also with the move to digital within cinemas lots of the projectionists are about to be made redundant. Curzon just recently made a deal with Sony. Head office think that the projectionists just press a button and sit there, but in reality they know the cinemas better than any of us. They double up as maintenance people. They know all the technology inside out and phasing them out means we will have to pick up all the extra work they do. Those at the top just don’t understand. They did a time and motion study to see how many people were coming in and out of the cinema, but they did it at the quietest time ever, literally a week after a big Human Rights Festival had just finished!
Jessica: We’re meant to think that these cinemas are nice little indie chains, but behind the scenes they’re owned by very rich people, we see the real corporate side of it. We have to deal with the real moneymen, so people are getting sick of the hypocrisy of it.
What can people do to support the campaign?
Adam: – Sign the petition here. You can like us on Facebook – look for the Curzon Workers Party! Follow us on twitter @CurzonWorkers. We’re quite active on twitter, so retweet us. Contacting head office is always a really useful thing to do aswell. So much of it doesn’t even reach them. And keep an eye out for what happens next. Obviously we have our meeting with head office next Wednesday. Keep supporting the Ritzy, watch what happens at Everyman cinemas and just to keep trying to get more and more people involved!