An unfinished essay-interview with workplace activists at the Curzon Cinemas covering their living wage fight, their union recognition agreement, and changes to their terms and working conditions.
This unfinished interview-essay was conducted over email at the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. For a variety of reasons, it was only partially completed and never released. What appears here is incomplete and reflects a particular moment in a much longer and still-ongoing struggle. But we decided to release it anyway because, even in its unfinished state, it still contains valuable lessons for other low-wage and service sector workers looking to organise on the job.
We’d like to stress again that, as the title suggests, this is a snapshot. Some of the issues discussed here have changed in scope and character. As always, the best way to find out information on the current state of the struggle at Curzon cinemas is to reach out to the workers themselves.
Finally, I’m sure many libcom readers will not fully endorse all the conclusions of the workers. However, understanding their subjective experiences - many of whom were involved in their first workplace dispute - should help us, as militants, better approach our own co-workers on the job.
Despite securing the London Living Wage, things are far from over at Curzon. As management come after perceived militants, workers continue to organise and fight.
Over the holidays, I was lucky enough to sit down with three Curzon Cinema workers. All have been actively involved in the union drive and successful campaign to secure the London Living Wage. While excited about the living wage bump they're about to receive in the new year, they were keen to stress this struggle has not - and will not - be solely about wages. As the campaign matures, workers intend to tackle wider issues of contracts, conditions, and respect.
We began by talking about the successes of the campaign so far, a subject of which certainly did not leave these workers at a loss for words. They began by praising “the Curzon gang”, BECTU, and their “brilliant” comrades at the Ritzy cinema before talking about some of the more high-profile individuals who’ve supported the campaign: Mark Thomas, Ken Loach, Owen Jones, and a slew of journalists and campaigners, not the least of which includes Rowenna Davis at the New Statesman. And, of course, all the support they’ve gotten from customers.
From there, they talked about some of the more transformative aspects of being involved in a two-year long struggle. This includes not only the more practical elements like “the basics of unionisation, organising, negotiation, ACAS, being a union member and basic employment law” but more abstract ones like the power of social media and seeing the way their campaign tied into a wider struggle:
“Our issue is a global one. Especially in the UK, other low-waged workers identified with our cause, so it was a relief to know that we weren’t alone”. But it wasn’t just a matter of passive support. They watched as “one-by-one people started to make noise about [the living wage] and they started to campaign for themselves - it was a community that started to grow…”
And as important as building that wider community of struggle no doubt is, the collective transformation of the Curzon workers is no less inspiring:
“Two years ago, we wouldn’t have known how to stand up for ourselves but now we know how to deal with a situation or an issue and where to look for support if we need it. And after two years of campaigning, Curzon actually agreed to pay us the Living Wage. This shows that determination, hope and organising does get results.”
But the bosses haven’t been sitting on their laurels either: they’ve been devising a number of ways to claw back some of that Living Wage money. In short, contracts and conditions at Curzon are facing a multi-pronged attack.
The first thing to say is that the workers I spoke to see putting in a bit more effort on the job as part of the trade-off for securing the Living Wage. In fact, they’re keen to stress the high-level of dedication they had to the job even before starting the campaign and joining the union.
And, indeed, many of the problems facing the Curzon workers predate the Living Wage campaign. Understaffing, for one, has been an ongoing concern. First, two experienced projectionists were made redundant, leaving the remaining two projectionist to cover thirteen cinemas across the UK. Then the box office at the Curzon Soho was closed. And for remaining staff, those who were seen to be part of the union drive had their hours cut and were denied requests for holiday time and the like. On top of this, front-of-house staff have had their job roles expanded and are now required to sell tickets, memberships, and deal with customer enquiries on top of their existing responsibility to serve food and drink.
Now that the union is installed and Curzon has agreed to the wage bump, managers are attempting to use the living wage as means to target perceived “troublemakers” who, they claim, “want to bring the company down”. So, while the workers acknowledge they created “a lot of hassle” for the company during the Living Wage fight, at this point the animosity is coming from the bosses:
“When management have this impression in mind, it’s very hard for us to communicate and work with them. We are actually quite passionate about our cinemas. We want only the best for the company but instead of talking or collaborating with us on how to make our cinemas a better place to work and the best place for customers, management have started throwing random dos and don’ts at us.”
And what are some of these random dos and don’ts? One particularly egregious example is the “drinking water rule”. As one of the workers put it to me:
“It can be very tiring and dehydrating to work in a high paced, busy environment and one has to hydrate by sipping water regularly. We got told we can’t do that anymore because it looks ‘unprofessional.’”
Resentment against such policies have been magnified by new rules that workers can’t wear jewelry and that long hair must be tied back while on the clock - not to mention a whole host of management actions that staff feel to be far, far more unprofessional than having a sip of water while working the till.
And it’s not only in the cinema that Curzon have been cracking the whip. Reflecting the Curzon workers’ deft use of social media during the living wage campaign, management rushed through a ‘social media policy’, pressuring employees to sign without adequate consultation or even giving them the necessary “time to read it first.” As a result of the new policy, a number of workplace Palestine supporters got a “soft disciplinary” for “a Gaza charity thing they did online”. They are challenging the disciplinary. They’ve yet to hear anything back, but the social media policy remains in force.
And, as if this wasn’t bad enough, the human resources manager “stalks staffs’ Facebook and Twitter accounts” Those who post anything considered to be in violation of the social media can face disciplinary action. The workers are understandably miffed:
“This is part of the policy and we can’t contest it. Our privacy has been openly invaded and we can’t believe there are laws allowing companies to do this.”
And just like the social media policy, management have been active on the contractual front, bringing in a slew of new policies to increase their control on the shopfloor while squeezing more work from staff.
First “vague new job descriptions” were introduced that allow managers to ask staff “to do anything they want because it's not specific.” The new job descriptions also contain the admonition that staff should “maximise sales” - a line the should put to bed any belief that Curzon is a friendly independent cinema that puts community and culture before profit.
Then, new hires had their right to paid breaks taken away. While this was agreed to as part of union negotiations (more on that later), this means that, effectively, management have introduced two-tier contracts into the workplace. Curzon workers, to their credit, have been “reaching out to new members of staff on this issue. We advise them that if they want paid breaks, they need to join the union. We’ll help them to organise and fight for it.”
Finally came the announcement of a “capped hours” system.
As part of the Living Wage deal, workers will have the option to choose between a zero-hours contract and a fixed hours contract that guarantees staff a certain minimum of hours each week, although potentially staff could pick up extra shifts during busy periods. The workers I spoke to recognize that this is a huge improvement in terms of job security and fully expect most staff to opt for the opt for the fixed hours option.
In theory, workers who move onto the new style defined hours contracts will have their weekly hours calculated based on previous work patterns. If you’ve worked 32 hours every week for the past six months, you should receive a new contract that guarantees you 32 hours every week of paid employment. The problem is that union members and union activists in particular are finding that this formula is not being kept when determining their weekly guarantee of hours. They’re finding their hours unjustly “capped” while favored workers and newer members of staff - those who weren’t part of the Living Wage campaign and aren’t entitled to paid breaks - get more hours week-to-week.
These contractual changes have been combined with a disciplinary emphasis on minor infractions or, as the workers put it, “ridiculous petty rules being enforced so that they can bully us legally”. Management have begun, for example, keeping much closer tabs on when staff arrive to work. Whereas in the past, managers were understanding if staff came in 5 -10 late as long as “we don’t take the piss or come in late for all our shifts”, now everything is recorded so that management can “can bring all that out in a disciplinary meeting”.
Then there’s the favoritism. As a result of the union drive and Curzon workers’ high media profile, management have worked hard to create the fig leaf of consultation and communication with their staff. A large part of this offensive has been for management to court what the workers I spoke to refer to as “the Yes Men staff”. So when the “brand and development team” want feedback, they sideline union members and, instead, focus solely on the input of their Yes Men. One can imagine the perks that come with being a Yes Man.
Finally, management have been cultivating a divide and rule between existing staff and longer-serving employees:
“Managers are told to give new staff members more hours, shifts and holidays and cap the union members’ hours. It’s gives management the advantage because new staff are less likely to be union members and are less likely to challenge management’s way of doing things.”
The workers I spoke to were clear to point out that they “don’t blame the new staff for that really”. Instead, they give it “six months to a year” before “they’ll get tired of the cinema and start complaining”. At this point they’re sure “some will leave and some will join the union and take action”.
A “kill list”
The net result of all this is what the workers describe as a “kill list” of staff whom management is seeking to oust. The workers see the new capped hours scheme as a large part of management’s strategy. By reducing the hours of union members, workers fear “they are planning to reduce our weekly hours slowly until we don’t have any”. Redundancies don’t appear to be on the horizon, but there is a widespread belief that management intends to pick off union activists using legal and bureaucratic back channels that avoid the sort of large-scale, public fights seen during the Living Wage campaign.
All this has left workers feeling that “management don’t understand what the London Living Wage means”:
“They have moved away from the real concept of the London Living Wage and are using the pay rise as an excuse for everything from staff performance and management style to job descriptions and appraisals. They have forgotten that the reason we need Living Wage is because we need that amount pay to survive and work in London. But we expected this from them because, on their salaries, they can’t understand what’s it’s like to paid below the Living Wage as they sit in an nice comfy office with a mug of coffee that they can drink whenever they want while at work.”
So, what’s been the role of the union in all this? The workers are definitely upbeat about BECTU and happy to have a recognised union at work, but they are experiencing some of the limitations of the recognition agreement. As it stands, the agreement “only allows BECTU to negotiate over pay, hours and redundancies.” Staff can challenge other aspects of their working conditions with the support of BECTU, “but it has to be via individual grievances.”
The problem with grievances is, of course, the fact they’re weighted in management’s favor. As one worker put it to me:
“They are really slow and the decision are biased as most of the people involved in the grievances are close friends/colleagues of the HR and operations managers.”
And even if BECTU were to achieve full negotiating rights, this doesn’t overcome the problem of legalism. So, for example, at the moment the Curzon workers are having to deal with a particularly nasty operations manager, Andrew Bailey. Coming to Curzon from VUE cinemas, he’s “very experienced as a bully. He’s known for it.” The problem, from the union point of view, is that “everything that Andrew Bailey does, it doesn't breach any contract or the law. He's doing all the wrong things within the law.” But “BECTU can only step in if he has legally done something wrong or if there is a grievance taken out against him”. What this means is that “BECTU would not support a campaign dedicated to kicking Andrew Bailey out.” Or, to put it another way:
“BECTU's job is to protect union member's welfare and not kicking someone out. It's not on their agenda”.
The other union development worth noting is the fact that “duty & assistant managers who have joined the union and are in the process of forming a BECTU Union Manager’s Branch.
While this author might not necessarily agree, the Curzon workers feel their managers are “victims” just as much as themselves. Their beef, from the beginner of the dispute, has been with “head office” and senior management.
What do you think it will take to ultimately resolve all these issues?
If they leave (Andrew Bailey) us alone. By “us” I mean, front of house staff, the managers and the projectionists in the cinema. Give us what we want in terms of making the cinema a great places for customers. Let us manage our own cinema and let the Head Office focus on getting the good films and do the marketing well for once, that’s all we ask!
What is the relationship like between the folks at Curzon and the folks at the Ritzy?
Great. We have a great connection with the union reps there and we keep in touch all the time and meet for drinks and dinner to catch up etc. They are a huge inspiration figures for us Curzoners. As we did not even go to ACAS to get the Living Wage, let alone to go on strike but these guys went on thirteen strikes and yet they’ve yet to be paid the Living Wage. [Note: this dispute has now been resolved largely in the workers’ favor.] So we all are still on it. We’re just waiting in the wings. Once they need us, we will go and help for sure!
Did many Curzon folks make it down to the Ritzy picket lines?
Sadly no. Only a few of us went because the rest of them had to cover us at work while we were picketing and most of the staff couldn’t afford to lose a shift as we were earning £7 an hour at the time and some of our hours was being cut for the new staff. But they were there in spirit with the Ritzy guys and we supported them in other ways via social media and general texting and phone calls etc.
How did the strikes at the Ritzy effect Curzon workers’ perceptions of industrial action?
We were inspired and ready for our first strike. Watching the Ritzy crew’s strike made us aware how much preparation we had to do and how much support we need from the public. So we were actually started planning our first strike i.e when and where and how we’re going to involve everyone etc. It was exhilarating and inspiring but nerve racking at the same time. Curzon workers in general were amazed and supportive towards Ritzy guys as it takes a lot of balls to strike like that, plus it’s really inspiring to see BECTU, Brixton community and South London union organisations stepping in to help their local cinema. We know we have the media, film, restaurateurs and LGBT folks in Soho, Mayfair, Chelsea, Wimbledon, Bloomsbury, Richmond and Victoria, so we were confident we’ll get the same volume of support as Ritzy’s if we were ever wanted to go on strike. We hope there won’t be any strikes but you never know with Curzon. You never know!
How has being involved in the union drive/LLW campaign changed workers’ perceptions of struggle?
Let me put this way. If it doesn’t affect you directly, then you wouldn’t know what’s happening around you and would not do anything. But if it does affect you directly in terms work or pay, then you start to take action for yourself and gather troops etc. At the moment, we have a high turnover in terms of staff and some have joined the union. We are still strong as union members and always will be. I think most staff are aware of this global issue of low pay/minimum wage etc but it takes alot of effort to do things i.e organising a team or supporting other campaigns etc
Have many Curzon workers got involved in supporting struggles outside of their own workplaces?
Well, if you followed the Curzon Workers Party on facebook or Curzon Workers on twitter, you will see we continuously support other union campaigners across the globe. But these pages are no longer active as part of the LLW agreement with Curzon is to clear all negative/anti-Curzon comments from social media.
Some of us went to the 3Cosas strike last summer, supported Peter Thatchell’s LGBT demos, the big massive union demos in Trafalgar Square and No Austerity demos this year and so on. But again, we don’t get to go to most of the demo as we are at work at the cinema and can’t afford to lose the shifts.
I wanted to ask you about your experience of having so many celebrities backing of your cause. I imagine that must creates some confidence amongst the workforce. On the other hand, is there a danger that the union can come to rely that media exposure instead of building up organisation on the shopfloor?
Good question. We never really rely on celebrities for our campaign. We never expected any celebrities would step in to help us in the way they did but they did and we are ever so grateful. Mark Thomas especially. He’s a great guy…
I don’t think BECTU relies solely on the media exposure but it is a pivotal part of campaigning. We take media exposures as one of our factors for our campaign but we’ve always organised within our group of union members across the country. If there are any celebrities wanted to help, that’ll be the icing on cake and make all the work we’ve put it even more worthwhile.
BECTU is very good at organising. They have a very good team of people who knows what they are doing. We know some of the campaigns and start-ups by BECTU and their members have failed. I think that’s partly because of staff/members/people in general are under the impression that union organisations are there to do everything for them. That is not the case. BECTU officials and staff are the same people as us, they work as hard as us and we support each other to bring a cause or campaign to victory. That’s how it works. Union members at their work place also have to do their part in organising and recruiting, without it, the union won’t be able to do much. There needs to be an effort from both sides. We were lucky as we had a group of angry motherfuckers and so it was quite easy to organise and rally the troops.
What can folks do practically to support you all - and I mean beyond signing petitions - real, practical on-the-ground stuff?
Thank you for asking this. We just want a peaceful environment at work with fair treatment and respect from everyone. We are not perfect and neither is the Curzon head office management. We just want to prove to them that we are good people, we just couldn’t afford to live on what they paid us...
We are sorry if we ever offended them but we had to do it because they weren’t listening to us. We are people. Not robots. We work in cinemas. Not sweatshops. We have brains and feelings. We are very grateful for the perks they offer us but we shouldn’t be punished and made to feel bad because of it. We work hard as well and we know they do too.
All we all need to do is sit down and talk it all out but at the moment it’s not possible as we are being punished and bullied in little ways for being union members and for campaigning for the LLW. They are paranoid. We are paranoid. It’s not a good energy to be working with.
What can the public do? Come and talk to us, see it for yourself. And then maybe politely approach Andrew Bailey (Operations Director), Emma Murphy (Head of HR) and Mel Alcock (COO) and talk to them. See how they feel about the company, the staff and ask them how you can help them? Lets help each other. Tell them that we are good people, good workers who want the company to do well. That’s why we work at the Curzon Cinemas.