A participant's account and critical reflections on an Industrial Workers of the World organising attempt at an independent cinema in 2008.
““I started working in the cafe bar at The Showroom cinema in February 2008. To begin with I enjoyed every aspect of working there. I was hard working and well liked and had never had a problem with management. After the restructuring and the hiring of a new operations management team, it was not long before I became aware of the total lack of job security and accessing basic employee benefits ie. sick pay and holiday pay. This new structure led to many questionable working 'methods' being put into place as well as some dubious tactics used to get rid of "unwanted" employees. This included the reduction of full time staff to untenable hours, forcing them to leave their jobs to seek other employment. During a staff meeting we were referred to as "natural wastage", even though many of us worked 40 hours weeks to provide customer service for the company.
I joined IWW [the Industrial Workers of the World union] to learn more about my rights and entitlement as a worker in order to protect myself. I had also discussed with other workers the benefits of being in a union. In August I discovered that a rumour was circulating management about a union active in the work place and naming me as a union organiser. Less than a week after I had discovered this I was fired under ridiculous accusations of 'misconduct'. These included, primarily, not being able to use a till I had not been trained on and which was notoriously temperamental, turning music up and lights down in the bar. I was never advised of my rights during the meeting and the statutory disciplinary procedure was never brought against me. These measures are steps by management to undermine employees' rights and eradicate any perceived trouble from those expecting more.” - C. Lockwood
The 12th September saw the commencement of an all day picket (and virtual email and telephone blockade) against the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield. This was not only to protest the illegal dismissal of trade union activist and IWW member Chris Lockwood but also to highlight a number of dubious practices a new management team had brought in which undermined workers rights. The Showroom Cinema had a long tradition of being a relaxed and informal cultural venue for independent cinema. Its workers have always been polite and accommodating. In fact, it was always policy to hire people who were interested and able to remain informed about art, cinema and independent film making. However, restructuring efforts brought in by a new management team had attempted to undermine these values by targeting flexibility, setting sale targets and forcing staff to "up-sell" products, providing rip-off kiosk services, ignoring input from long time staff and making "cost-cutting" measures across the workplace. Here are just a few of the new "measures" the hotel manager who now runs The Showroom had taken against staff; Firing workers for being ill; Providing no written contracts for bar staff; Refusal to pay sick pay; Referral to staff as "natural wastage" in a staff/management meeting (quoted from Ian Wild, CEO of SMEC); Voiding accrued holiday, expected and promised to staff; Breaching of contract by refusing to provide certain staff with contracted hours and refusal to follow disciplinary procedures.
Chris Lockwood had been a vocal critic of many of these changes. Another anarchist and IWW member was also a long-time employee of the Showroom Cinema and had discussed with Chris the possibility of using the union to address the more serious charges against management. Chris worked in the bar and was particularly concerned with the fact that bar workers at the Showroom were never issued written contracts. This had lead to the swift dismissal of several before him but also presented day-to-day problems in terms of having no set hours to rely on each week. Following a few informal meetings, and with Chris’s agreement, a letter was sent to the Showroom management on union letterhead asking for the contract situation to be addressed. Chris was not named in this correspondence although he had been speaking to some of his colleagues about the IWW (the other IWW member worked at the kiosk and therefore had a written contract and was on more secure ground for agitating amongst the workforce). What followed was pretty standard treatment for “troublemakers” in the workplace at that time. A drop in hours to the bare minimum, several “quite words” with management and then if the worker still didn't get the message a swift dismissal. The difference this time was that instead of the problem quietly “going away” Chris Lockwood had his fellow workers and an international union standing behind him.
Unwittingly on the part of management, firing Chris Lockwood proved to swell support for the union. The general anger at the unfair way he had been treated swelled IWW membership to over half of the Showroom workforce. IWW members, or "Wobblies" as they are affectionately known, also travelled from across the country to support his cause.
The email and phone blockade proved so successful that the company had to change its email addresses several times and finally threw in the towel and shut down its communication systems for the day. Messages of support and solidarity flooded in from across the UK, Europe and even as far away as Haiti! A group of college students who had been on a school trip spontaneously joined the picket, gripping placards and yelling slogans into the megaphone. An impromptu occupation of the bar area was even staged (who were we to temper their enthusiasm!). Local people were very supportive of the cause, showroom customers, despite often having travelled across town to see a film decided they'd rather find entertainment elsewhere than cross the picket line. IWW fellow workers (FWs) on shifts who were unable to join the picket lines wore their union badges in solidarity and even treated the picketers to a few on-the-sly rounds of hot drinks. Throughout the evening nervous glances were observed from the management team who, according to a conversation overheard earlier in the week, were expecting “a couple people at most”. The spectacle degenerated into pure farce when in order to try and drown out the sound of noisy picketers customers in the bar were treated to perhaps the loudest classical piano recital we had ever heard. Despite their efforts we prevailed and according to a worker on the front-of-house we could be heard loud and clear throughout the building. It had been a noisy, anxious and utterly exhausting today but what we had demonstrated was the sincerity of our commitment that an injury to one really is an injury to all and giving management a well deserved boot up the arse!!
What happened in the following months was a concerted campaign by management to downplay, misinform and undermine every aspect of our union organising. Whether they wanted to admit it or not, the picket and following boycott of the Showroom Cinema had been really bad publicity for the company. We had even managed to get a sympathetic piece in the local newspaper – The Sheffield Star – about Chris’s case. The Showroom tries to promote the idea of being a fairly liberal, right-on place to work and the idea of workers' struggles simply didn't fit with this image. The company even has an “investor in people” award which requires it to act in a socially responsible manner towards the community (and this includes its workforce).
So first off the management decided to try and bring in a “sweetheart” union in an effort to “solve” the problem. They arranged a meeting for the management team and the workforce with some bureaucratic hack from the TUC. Despite every best effort to contact this rep, he managed to remain elusive until the day of the meeting when his intentions became clear. He did his level best to insult and de-legitimise our efforts claiming that the IWW “was not able to represent workers”, that we wished to “annihilate” managers (managers like himself incidentally), that we were equivalent to Solidarity – the BNP's “union” and that we were all trotskyist/nihilist/stalinist looney lefties. Of course this didn't really help his case given that the majority of FW's in the Showroom Cinema are in fact far from trotskyist/nihilist/stalinist looney lefties, just working class people who are sick of being shit on by management. For the majority of them this was their first experience of workplace activism and with the exception of the initial IWW member none had any political affiliation.
Management, of course, was very enthusiastic about BECTU (The media and entertainment union) having a presence in the Showroom with many of the management team even pledging to join. We, on the other hand, insured that the meeting with the TUC rep was packed out with those sympathetic to our cause and gave the guy a really tough time, making it absolutely clear that this was our struggle and we would not tolerate being undermined by another union. The end result was an abject failure for management. Far from demonstrating our inadequacies, the meeting showed our growing strength and now with workers openly pronouncing their support for the IWW and their grievances with the restructuring programme the bosses were forced to concede the unfair treatment of Chris Lockwood and the bad publicity it had generated. This was of course not the end of management shenanigans. The following months saw the targeting of the more militant and vocal fellow workers. An IWW member was “suspended” under flimsy pretexts for two weeks (the managers refused to concede he was suspended just “sent home” indefinitely). However, after lodging a grievance and a meeting with an IWW representative the bosses had to apologise for their behaviour towards him and allowed him to return. Next we were granted a bit of good fortune. The Investors in People were, coincidentally, in the months following the picket doing a survey of the Showroom Cinema in order to renew the award. As part of this process they randomly select a couple of workers to describe their experiences of working there. They, again in a stroke of sheer luck, selected a fellow worker who was able to describe in great detail the bad practice that had been going on in the company and the recent picket against the illegal dismissal. The result was IIP coming down really hard on the management team and threatening to withdraw the award. Following the interview the guy even went so far as threatening to rip the IIP plaque off the wall himself! A few days later, and as a direct result of these meetings, the operations manager, one of the worse culprits in undermining workers rights and bullying people in the workplace, was fired. Good riddance!
This is of course was not the end of the struggle. While there is a real sense that the tide is turning in our way there is still a lot of work to be done and we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. The Senior Manager is still very much calling the shots and we have recently discovered that the board of directors are starting to push him against recognising our union. Small victories have been won - the attitude of management towards workers is markedly improved, all workers now have written contracts and, most importantly, someone to turn to when the boss starts to put on the pressure – but many of the original changes workers objected to remain. The work is still fundamentally casual in nature with very little control of the day-to-day operation of the company. So our recognition battle continues and we struggle on, but we are in good spirits and confident that we can really make a difference.
A special thanks to Rob, Pete, Euan and all those who offered their skills, support and solidarity for our efforts.
The article above was originally written for the IWW magazine Bread and Roses following the peak of the struggle at the Showroom Cinema. Shortly after the union decided to discontinue the magazine, so the piece went unpublished (the brand was revived as an agitational newspaper later but nothing that could incorporate a piece of writing of this length). It is now over a year since the campaign around Chris’ dismissal started, a number of the key organisers have now left the Showroom Cinema, have left the IWW and, unfortunately, little remains of an organisational presence in that workplace. We have little doubt that our activity did and continues to make a real difference to those who continue and have now joined that work force; we also acknowledge with regret that our more ambitious plans went largely unfulfilled. I take this opportunity to reflect on this struggle not in an attempt to speak for the IWW or the Showroom workers, but my personal perspective as a working class activist and, what was for me as well as many others, our first involvement in any kind of sustained workplace struggle.
One Big Union: Advantages and Limitations of the IWW model in the Showroom dispute
I am an anarchist-communist, as was the other Showroom worker identified in the piece above. While we were both critical of the revolutionary capacity of any union (even one that called for the abolition of wage labour), we also saw in the IWW a potentially very useful tool in workplace struggle. The grievances in the Showroom cinema particularly lent themselves to casework and we knew that the IWW already has a wealth of experience, and some victories, in this capacity. We had very little experience of the legalities and tactics of workplace negotiations and were thankful for the pool of experience and resources the IWW provided. The workers we intended to organise in the Showroom had never been in a trade union before nor had any experience of political activity. Chris occasionally checked the activist news site Indymedia and another worker of French descent had encountered campaigns against casualisation back home (incidentally she left the Showroom shortly before the Chris Lockwood dispute, moved back to France and joined the CNT-F) but that was about it. While unionisation was by no means a natural step, many felt that even discussing such a move was needless “trouble-making”, I also feel it gave us a certain credibility that we were able to rely upon in our agitation. Of course, this also had its limitations. To represent the IWW is to put all your cards on the table, so-to-speak. It was pretty clear from the preamble the IWW was an anti-capitalist organisation and that signing up to this was to do more than just join a more democratic or militant union. This was not an issue for many in the Showroom (we were generally very successful at recruiting, holding over 50% of the workforce for at least two to three months) but did present a bar to membership for some. I do wonder whether simply a militant group of workers organised around common grievances could have been more successful. Whether that anti-capitalist consciousness could have been cultivated better in struggle as opposed to expecting workers to sign up to a revolutionary programme off the bat with only a few grievances with management to date. Of course our lack of experience barred us from this course of action at the time.
In terms of the actual struggle again the IWW provided both benefits and drawbacks. The national/international structure enabled mass co-ordination on a scale that would have not been possible within a localised group of workers. Wobblies, anarchists and others sympathetic to our cause did travel across the country to help us (we even had the obligatory Trotskyist newspaper seller on our picket line, a very strange situation indeed). Without their support, particularly those named at the end of the article, I do not think we would have made any gains. The legal status of the IWW, particularly our attempt to negotiate British trade union legislation was, however, a different story. Although the IWW is a listed union in the British Isles, it is not independently certified (certificates of independence are used to ensure that trade unions are independent from employers). This means that while it was possible to enter a grievance procedure with an IWW rep and lodge for unfair dismissal on the basis of IWW membership, the IWW could not enter collective bargaining agreements nor legally engage in strike action without voluntary recognition by management. Anything other than this would have been completely legally untested or would have meant engaging in unofficial action (a step even the most militant workers weren’t prepared to take). Management, of course, did not wish to recognise the IWW preferring the TUC-registered, and obviously management friendly, BECTU instead. At the time our goal was recognition (something that was perhaps ill-advised but I’ll discuss this more later) in the hope that we would be able to formally negotiate pay, minimum contracted hours and the discrepancies between the different parts of the workplace. The Showroom was an independent cinema and therefore a single bargaining unit so it was theoretically possible to hold the 50%+ membership to help us force recognition. However, in order to do this we needed a certificate of independence and getting this was a long and costly process with wider implications for the national union structure (the union accounts needed to be officially audited, for example). Many within the union put an admirable effort into pushing this forward done by raising money, consulting with lawyers etc. This was, however, a horribly bureaucratic and lengthy process that required a great deal of time and effort. This eventually put a permanent stall on our organising. It was felt at the time (perhaps wrongly) that we couldn’t go any further without recognition and this caused us to rest on our laurels. Some within the IWW felt that the Showroom organising had been too hasty in the first place, that we could risk getting the union sued and that we should scale back our efforts. A contradiction that I believe naturally follows from organising within the “one big union” that really isn’t. We managed to hold on for a while but as the months dragged on (the IWW is still not certified independently as of April 2010) membership declined and many involved started to drift away or get other jobs. Eventually holding a presence within the workplace simply became untenable.
Reflections on organising casual labour
With the exception of a few projectionists and low-level supervisors everyone employed in the Showroom cinema was on part-time or temporary contracts (or no contract at all). This, coupled with the already hostile approach of management to organised labour, meant organising was incredibly difficult. Management would frequently dismiss workers for even the hint of trouble or drop their hours (sometime to as low as one shift in a fortnight) until they would be forced to leave. There was also a regular turnover of the workforce. This made developing trust and channels of communication very difficult. One key organiser in particular would spend virtually all his time at work recruiting trying to maintain our organisational presence. This was obviously very stressful and this with the looming threat of dismissal in a job with already very low wages would often prove too much to sustain. Many workers had joined the Showroom with an eye to getting better work or as students subsidising their studies, sometimes it was better just to keep your head down and just try and tolerate the crap that management was pulling. Being a cinema, and as is standard for service sector jobs, workers would also be scheduled for shifts all times of the day, all week. This made the idea of a formal, union meeting at a regular time and place pretty impossible. This again was perceived as another potential advantage of union recognition, that we would be able to call regular meetings on company time. Discussions had to be held impromptu, during shift changes and fag breaks and always behind the backs of management. Carrying through the formal union procedures of taking and reporting dues payments was increasingly difficult. Of course, this didn’t matter much to us at the time. We were overwhelmed on the day of the Chris Lockwood picket that so many workers were proudly wearing an IWW badge while on their shifts. It just became a problem later on when the legalities of recognition began to sink in. Chris, although carrying through the grievance with Showroom management, soon went on to another, higher-paid job. We could have got him his job back, management was even verging on offering it back to him during the height of the struggle, but after all that he had been put through he just didn’t want it. And who can blame him? He was a marked man by that point, who would want to go through all that hassle again just for a part-time, minimum wage job?
Formal vs. Informal praxis
As I have already mentioned, after the swell in membership that followed Chris’s dismissal union recognition was a central goal. At the time we felt that this would have been a massive step forwards for the IWW in the UK, that it would have provided clear advantages and greater potential for winning more gains from management locally and helped to solidify a radical presence in the cinema. Perhaps we were naive, perhaps we were too foolhardy as some of our FWs had suggested at the time. Looking back now, with a good deal of distance between myself and the struggle, I feel that it would be wrong to perceive the Showroom dispute as a failed recognition battle. The real gains that we made in terms of changes in conditions to the workforce, securing peoples jobs and getting contracts for bar workers were largely initiated outside of the recognition struggle and by much more informal action. It was never really possible to formally establish the IWW in the Showroom in an equivalent way to the way a TUC union, for example, would operate. It would be more appropriate to describe the activity as largely initiated by a circle of militant workers sympathetic to the IWW approach. I don’t think we were able to hold even one meeting with the entire membership in one room. Rather, information and advice was passed in-between shifts, on the job or in conversations after work. We never had a collectively agreed strategy or approach as a group within the workplace. Rather there was a core of militants at the centre of the struggle who were continuously agitating and pushing for bolder, more militant action. This was in addition to the two of us who already identified as anarchists.
Sometimes we were just aided by good fortune. The interview with the Investors in People, for example, just happened to be with one of the more militant workers. This seemingly quite small incident ended in a big gain for us with the dismissal of the manager who had spear-headed much of the restructuring and had been the worst culprit for bullying workers (he was also the manager responsible for Chris’s dismissal). Union membership was important at points. It clearly put management on the back-foot, the advice and representation provided by the union was decisive at points and it proved to be a powerful tool in resisting the attempts to bring in a “sweetheart” union. I’m unsure whether all of these activities could have been replicated with a non-union group. However, to talk of an IWW “branch” waging a collective struggle would clearly be disingenuous. We were also supported throughout the struggle by members of the Anarchist Federation, both inside and outside the IWW, and via news and networking sites such as Sheffield Indymedia, Revleft and Libcom. In this respect being a revolutionary connected to international networks of revolutionaries played as much a role, in terms of publicising and attracting solidarity to the struggle, as being an IWW member. Even the local animal rights group, who two of us knew through previous political activism, came down to support the picket in numbers.
Compared to many of the great labour disputes that have been waged in Sheffield’s history the activity which occurred at the Showroom cinema really does pale in comparison. It was relatively short and we, unfortunately, have only some small gains to show from it. It was, however, and still does feel important to us. Many of the conditions that persisted at the Showroom are faced by millions of workers in the UK every day. They, like those in the cinema, are unlikely to have any prior political involvement or experience of collective struggle and will expect to face a hostile and aggressive management reaction to any form of workplace organisation. I am reluctant to draw any definitive conclusions as I do not feel it is my place nor do I feel it is my capacity to do so. I feel we did make mistakes; we also got a lot of things right. I outline my thoughts in the spirit of constructive dialogue and the hope that we can build a stronger, more effective way of intervening in working class struggles.
The author of this article is no longer a member of the IWW. The views should be considered his alone and not those of the union.