Charlie Burton and Martin Platais covered the first strike at East Dulwich Picturehouse on Saturday 15 April. Additional reporting by Max Leak.
At 1pm on Saturday, staff at East Dulwich Picturehouse walked out of work, demanding the London Living Wage, union recognition, and adequate pay for sickness and parental leave. This strike was co-ordinated with further walkouts at other Picturehouse cinemas in Hackney, Crouch End, Picturehouse Central, and The Ritzy in Brixton. Whilst the fight for better pay and conditions is already underway at Hackney Picturehouse and The Ritzy, workers at East Dulwich have now taken action for the first time, following last month’s Picturehouse strike in Brighton. Cineworld, the owners of the Picturehouse cinemas, reported post-tax profits of £83.8 million in 2015. The small national chain of Picturehouse cinemas style themselves as independent arthouse theatres embedded in communities, but, beneath this nonsense, the reality is that workers are poorly paid, often given insufficient hours, and, by fighting back, are entering into a daunting battle against a large and inscrutable corporation. We spoke to two organizers at East Dulwich to find out more about their experience of taking the fight to their employers through organizing in a workplace with no prior union activity.
‘The last six months we have not been happy – we are not happy with the conditions’. One organizer has only been at East Dulwich for six months; the other, two years. Both believe the task of building solidarity in the workplace has been made easier by a steady deterioration in conditions at work, the experience of most of Britain’s low-paid and increasingly precarious workforce over these periods. Neither of the strike’s organizers claimed to have any previous experience of organizing in a workplace or in political groups. However, February’s strikes at The Ritzy, Hackney Picturehouse, Picturehouse Central, and Crouch End Picturehouse amounted to the ‘largest cinema workers’ strike in UK history’. This precedent has combined with increasingly spiteful means of controlling and disciplining the workforce at East Dulwich Picturehouse. For instance, workers were previously allowed to take home unused food as long as it was within its use by date. Management have put a stop to this. Cineworld has long been notorious for its use of zero-hours contracts, and the East Dulwich Picturehouse is no exception. Even staff who have any guaranteed days are certain of no more than four, usually only two. Many are students who’ve moved to London after graduating, and now find themselves holding down two-part time jobs. All of this, taken together with management’s refusal to recognize the workers’ chosen union, BECTU, and even enter negotiations over pay and cover for sickness and parental leave, meant the majority of staff at East Dulwich were ‘happy to get on board’ with joining a union and fighting back. When BECTU-affiliated workers at East Dulwich balloted for strike action, 88 percent voted in favour with a 94 percent turnout. Within a space of a few months, approximately two thirds of the front-of-house-staff had signed up to BECTU – most of those who haven’t are still on probationary periods which last a minimum of three months. We were told that most union members at East Dulwich had joined BECTU after conversations on shift. As the Unite general secretary election draws to a close with only a grassroots candidate distinguishable from the usual farce of bureaucratic stitch-ups and widespread disillusionment, it’s useful to consider how the intensifying exploitation of workers across the UK has led to rapid and militant unionization of traditionally unorganized sectors of the workforce.
On the day of the strike, workers from East Dulwich were joined by those from The Ritzy and the Picturehouse cinemas in Hackney, Crouch End, and Brighton, along with supportive members of the public. Cineworld has taken a hard line against strikes previously, and Saturday proved no exception. Following the use of similar tactics elsewhere, two workers had been recruited and trained offsite at Stratford Picturehouse to be brought in as strike-breakers for their first day working at East Dulwich. With picketing now effectively illegal, little can be done to prevent this beyond escalating union engagement and militancy in the workplace. The organizers of the strikes in London now have the rest of the country’s Picturehouse-branded cinemas in their sights, but taking on the many cinemas owned by Cineworld is simply considered too large a task. One striker opined, ‘they are afraid to give the Living Wage in case it spreads to Cineworld’. This was borne out by Cineworld sending in corporate vampire and Picturehouse executive Clare Binns to stand at the entrance handing out literature traducing the strikers and their demands. The leaflet justified the refusal to recognize BECTU with the claim that employees are already represented by ‘the Forum Union’. However, one worker at The Ritzy who’d come to show solidarity bluntly stated, ‘the official “Forum” reps work for the company – they don’t represent us.’ He added that some workers didn’t even know that this sham organization exists. That the anti-strike literature advertised ‘free soft drinks and popcorn when visiting the cinema to watch a film’, and that ‘when staff are working they can have as much tea, coffee, hot chocolate or draught soft drinks as they like’, amongst ‘staff benefits’, shows the contempt with which workers are routinely treated. Upon asking striking workers from East Dulwich more about the staff bonuses being advertised by Binns, we were informed that it was a pooled bonus dependent on how many Picturehouse memberships each worker sold. Of course, as many who’ve worked in low-paid service jobs might know, such incentives merely serve to make increased exploitation and discipline seem like a reward. Trying to convince a customer to hand over even more of their money for a membership that they almost certainly don’t want is probably one of the more tiring parts of the job. Whilst keeping records of these sales allows management to discipline workers for not generating enough profit, providing a pooled financial incentive for completing a sale simultaneously makes it harder for collective resistance, such as slowdowns, or even just discussing working conditions, to emerge spontaneously.
Whilst the abysmally low levels of industrial action across the UK over the last three decades mean that recent strikes have often taken employers by surprise, it’s clear that Cineworld aren’t prepared to compromise. However, the ability to unionize from scratch, with workers at different cinemas across London and even as far as Brighton co-ordinating their efforts, is a necessary example of working-class solidarity taking the fight to employers. The Left should look to give full support to these struggles and theorize how working-class power can be constituted through the grassroots, rather than contained by the disastrous ‘partnership’ model pursued by the bureaucracies of the larger trade unions. When asked why she’d come down to support the strikers at East Dulwich, another worker from The Ritzy said, ‘with the campaign going at this rate, it’s sending out a really positive message that we can win.’ To this end, it’s encouraging that the Picturehouse workers are thinking of next steps in terms of escalating confrontation to put Cineworld on the back foot.
You can find East Dulwich Picturehouse Living Wage and help to support their campaign here.