Workers at all five London branches of cinema chain Picturehouse went on strike this weekend as part of their long-running campaign for the London Living Wage (currently £10.20 per hour). Picturehouse owners Cineworld, which according to Picturehouse workers’ union BECTU made £93.8m profit after tax in 2016 and whose CEO was paid over £2.5m in 2017, has consistently refused to recognise the union or address the workers’ demands.
East London rs21 joined the picket line in Hackney during the busy Saturday evening period, as Picturehouse workers and supporters raised awareness about the dispute with customers – a number of whom then declined to enter the cinema. Afterwards Will Niko and James B spoke to striking worker Clare about the dispute.
James: Could you tell us a little bit about what the programme of the campaign is now?
Clare: We were going to have a 10-day strike. But a new law has been brought in which meant that we couldn’t walk out on strike and be paid for the hours that we’d already worked. For example, if your shift was five-thirty to ten and we were striking from eight-thirty, as was the plan for weekdays for the next two weeks, then you would wouldn’t be paid for those three hours from five-thirty to eight-thirty. We couldn’t afford to do that. Now we’re just doing these two days: today and tomorrow.
Will: Do you have further actions coming up?
Clare: Yes, there is nothing confirmed yet, but action is definitely happening because we’ve had the majority vote to strike, which is the main obstacle in making the strike happen.
James: Do you think the tactic of getting the message out to cinema-goers is working?
Clare: I think a major part of the campaign is just emphasising that this is a dispute, because clearly for a lot of people it’s the first time they’ve heard about it. The best thing people can do to support our strike is of course to boycott Picturehouse cinemas, but it’s quite hard sometimes standing out on the picket line and trying to convince somebody in a place like London not to go and see a film, because everyone’s got a busy life and they’ve organised their evening and they have made an effort to go out. I think that part of the reason that they respond as if nothing’s wrong is because many people these days are not really aware of what a strike is.
Will: You think people have lost the awareness of what worker militancy and solidarity look like?
Clare: Yes, people aren’t necessarily familiar with the language of a strike. When you tell them they’re crossing a picket line sometimes it can seem like that’s not even language that they’ve heard before and they don’t actually understand what that means. I think that a lot of people, while they might consider themselves liberal or left-wing, will still bowl happily through the picket line to see a movie and ignore us.
James: Do you think that’s partly because for them it’s a social activity, not something they associate with the workplace or their own experience of exploitation?
Clare: Going to the cinema is something you do for pleasure, it’s seen as a fun thing to do. It’s a place where you go to escape reality or look into a different world. The idea that there’s any issues there, or that there could be anything wrong with that, people just don’t really want to consider. I think a lot of people have pretty shitty attitudes towards it to be honest. They say things like: “Why don’t you just get another job?” To me that just says: “why don’t you just let someone who doesn’t mind working for less than what it costs to live in London work here instead?”
Will: Do you know how union organization has been coordinated between the Picturehouses?
Clare: I’m probably not the best person to ask about that. But I can give you my perspective. When I was approached about joining the union it wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory for me because I’ve been involved in workplace organising a little bit in the past. I thought I might as well do my bit, but it definitely helps that there are a handful of key people who can mobilise everybody and who have a familiarity with the language and politics of solidarity. They meet across Picturehouses and they provide quite a conscious organisational backbone. A lot of people have put in a lot of hard work and dedication towards this, it doesn’t just happen.
James: How is the morale of union members?
Clare: It’s hard to say. I think that even when it seems tough there is a real steadfastness in our collective determination. It was quite a big blow to be told that we weren’t able to have this 10 day strike because we were really ready for it. Not striking, or working during a strike, is just something I’m never going to do. I just wouldn’t do that. Knowing that, and having that conviction makes you quite steadfast whatever management throw at you. There’s lots of social media connections as well which helps, because it’s always heartening when you hear of people who are boycotting Picturehouse, or when celebrities do endorsements, it makes you feel like you’ve got people on your side. Because it’s not exactly the smallest beast, Cineworld.
James: It seemed just from one conversation I had that it would be beneficial if the campaign was part of a much more widespread and well-known living wage campaign. Somebody told me that even though they don’t earn the living wage she would never use that as an excuse to cross a picket line for workers who were organising on that basis.
Clare: If you want to work a shitty low-pay job there’s a million places you can go, so why not mobilize and unionize and make it happen, because you’re not officially allowed to get fired for that? Though in reality of course there are victimisations. Whatever the costs though, if you don’t fight you can’t win. One of the reasons that I’d really love to see our campaign work is because it would be so great to set an example.
Will: And to demonstrate what can happen when you organise.
Clare: Yes, exactly. A lot of people have this idea that you Picturehouse workers are lazy hipsters or something. They ask us why we think we deserve their support when there’s workers being exploited round the corner at Sainsbury’s. I always just say: “That’s not where we we work, we work here.” It would be amazing for all workers to have the same level of organisation, but it’s going to take time. We need to inspire confidence by example.
James: I suppose some customers assume that there’s a trade-off because whilst you’re not paid particularly well, you have the privilege of working in ‘the arts’. I’m not saying that’s even an accurate description, but what would you say to that?
Clare: I would say: “Tell me that after kids club on a Saturday, when all I’m doing is picking up a shit-ton of popcorn, nappies, and basically just cleaning.” It doesn’t really feel like I’m working in the arts, it’s a cleaning job.
Donations to the strike fund can be made at picturehouselivingwage.com.
Readers can also sign this petition to the Cineworld CEO.
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