Lights, Camera, Direct Action

August 6, 2014


A growing wave of direct action is bringing change to the low wage culture of London’s cinemas. One fifth of workers’ pay in Britain is beneath the living wage (or ‘poverty threshold wage’) of £7.65 an hour. The employees at London’s independent cinemas are amongst those experiencing exploitation, but a growing wave of direct action at two cinemas in particular – the Curzon Cinema chain and the Ritzy cinema in Brixton – is beginning to challenge that. There are lessons from these campaigning workers which “Low Pay Britain” can learn from.

Both Curzon and the Ritzy have well-established reputations as leading art house cinemas; the places to go for quality screenings, comfortable surroundings and progressive values. Look a little closer, however, and the reality for those running the cinemas day-to-day couldn’t be further from this luxurious image. Employees’ wages have stagnated at poverty levels, with the current hourly rate of £7.24 for Ritzy and £7 for Curzon, leaving workers barely breaking even after the exorbitant cost of London rents and transport. These cinema workers form part of the lowest paid 13.1% in London.

In the past few years, cinema ticket prices have soared to around £15. Meanwhile, the numbers of independent filmmakers attending the cinemas continues to drop. Yet, in direct contradiction of their desperate penny pinching, recent Curzon press releases proudly boast of new cinemas opening and luxurious refurbishment by the end of the year. The Picturehouse chain, which runs The Ritzy, is also reportedly engaged in a substantial expansion programme.

The tension between the culture of management and that of cinema employees is clear. Workers at Curzon care passionately about the cinemas in which they work and want to make them inclusive centres of arts and culture. Instead, harsher and harsher workplace rules have been imposed on them, accompanying the poverty wages, to create a ruthlessly ‘efficient’ and soulless enterprise – marking a disconnect between the way the two sides view the institution.

The zero-hours contracts used by Curzon have placed employees in a very vulnerable position in regards to any attempt to speak out and improve their conditions. The grim prospect of not receiving any shifts in future prevents employees speaking up. Tania El Khoury, a former employee, said that after voicing opposition to the direction taken by the cinema in recent years, she was told by management: “we would totally understand if you decide to leave the job.”

Since early 2013, the campaigning Curzon workers have been seeking four things (anonymously, of course): the London Living Wage for all employees, flexible secure contracts (rather than zero-hours), recognition of their union BECTU, and the reintroduction of concession tickets for customers. Two of these have been achieved – as BECTU are now recognised and concession tickets have been reintroduced. The massive support gained so far is thanks to direct action, of a suitably creative nature.

An online petition begun in April 2013 in support of Curzon workers has now received over 6,500 signatures, as the glaring contradiction of a supposed champion of progressive values opposing basic employment rights for its own staff outraged many thousands of cinemagoers. The comments left alongside the signatures can be summed up by the words: “I expected better.”

The backlash has spilled out from the internet and reached behind the red curtain, as many in the film industry have joined the campaign. Last November, Stanley Schtinter, co-producer of the 70×70 film season with Iain Sinclair, pulled out of a screening at Curzon Soho and announced a boycott of the chain until they recognize the BECTU union and begin negotiations. Actors Viggo Mortensen and Miriam Margolyes have also signed the petition, as well as directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, who said they were “shocked to discover such an obscene difference between the exemplary way [Curzon] treat their public and their cynical exploitation of their staff”. Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, voiced his support for the Ritzy campaigners: “People have to live and that becomes impossible when they aren’t getting the London Living Wage. The clue is in the name: London. Living. Wage. Picturehouse, times may be hard for cinema operators, but they’re a damn sight harder for cinema staff.”

Comedian-activist Mark Thomas’ creative flair was applied to his protests in support of the exploited Curzon workforce. He transformed the Curzon Soho readograph (the sign in front of the cinema) to read ‘Give Us Fair Pay’ and held what was billed as ‘the world’s first day-glo demo’ at the cinema. Mark and other campaigners stood in front of the screen holding illuminated placards showing reworked cinematic slogans, such as ‘I’ll have what she’s having – concession tickets’ and ‘Alright Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my living wage’.

Across the river, at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema, a more traditional form of protest has erupted. There have been a series of strikes, voted for by 85 per cent of union members, over three days in April and most recently on May Day. The strike action has received strong support from the local community, who recognise the part the exploited staff play in making the cinemas profitable.

For the workers themselves, the past year has been an awakening. There is a feeling of empowerment – united in the campaign, they are no longer willing to be pushed around. The overwhelming support from the public shows the passion that the issue of low pay ignites among the public. The caricature of an apathetic public seems utterly false to the campaigners.

Despite all the support, protests, and the many promises from Curzon management, the living wage is no closer to being introduced at either Curzon Cinema or the Ritzy. The gaining momentum is firmly behind the campaigners though. Their brave actions will bring change to their workplaces eventually, and in doing so they are inspiring others affected by the unfairness of living below the living wage.

By Fred Paxton | @fredpaxton


UPDATE :  Statement From “A Living Wage for Ritzy Staff” Campaign 2 August 2014

“On Wednesday 30 July 2014 the Ritzy negotiating team, including union reps from the Ritzy and senior BECTU Officials, met with management representatives from the company at ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service – an independent non-departmental government agency that tries to resolve disputes such as ours. After nine and a half hours of talks, lasting until 3am, the two sides reached a final offer that represents a significant improvement on any previous offers, though it does not reach the London Living Wage. The negotiating team took the view that this was the best offer that could be achieved by negotiation and decided to recommend acceptance of the offer to the membership on that basis.

It should be made clear that this does not mean that a deal has been ‘agreed’ as some media outlets have reported. As at every stage of this process, the BECTU members at The Ritzy themselves are the only ones empowered to make that decision and they will do so in the coming weeks through a secret ballot.

We would like to thank our supporters once again for their continued solidarity, we will update you as soon as we can.”

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