An interview-essay detailing the experiences of cinema worker Eve Ryman and her involvement in a self-organised wage/contract dispute and subsequent union drive.
I first met Eve when we began working together. In that way that you do, we began talking about our previous jobs. She'd been in the cinema industry. I happened to mention the Curzon workers and Eve responded with, "Oh yeah, we launched our union drive in response to theirs..."
As far as I know Eve is not a communist and this interview doesn't explicitly contain the structural critique of trade unions often seen on libcom. However, workers like these, their stories should be told. There is an inherent values in hearing and sharing the stories of workers who get fed up and fight back. And precisely because that fightback often takes the form of a combination of self-organisation and trade unionism, it's all the more important that we, as dedicated revolutionaries, pay attention. After all, it's those very same workers who we should most be reaching out to.
To hear Eve tell it, working in a cinema can be pretty good as far as it goes. The workers there tend to be creative types and generally find satisfaction in their work. As she puts it:
“When I began working at Everyman it was, by far, the best job I had ever had. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s genuinely true. There was a tight-knit but welcoming group of staff, friendly and respecting managers and an all round level of happiness.”
So what happened? How did a generally contented workforce go from an “all round level of happiness” to spearheading a unionisation drive in a historically unorganised industry with a predominantly young workforce?
According to Eve, grievances began to pile up when workers realised that despite massive company profits, the perks which provided a counter-balance to the low-pay – free taxis home after midnight, a 'shift drink' – were being cut to non-existence.
This wasn't without material consequences:
“Many of my colleagues worked at the cinema while attempting to further their careers in the creative industries. The pay in these areas is erratic at best and many relied on income from the cinema to survive. With shifts being cut, many of us lived below the breadline and, although it sounds ridiculous, as the end of the month approached and money ran out, lots of us would eat the out-of-date food stock.”
So, I asked Eve, how did you go from the discontent to actually raising the issue with management?
“As perks were removed and shifts continually cut, disquiet grew slowly and eventually we decided that, rather than sitting around and moaning, we should explain our frustrations to head office.”
The main issue was pay:
“The company was growing fast, year on year, and yet the staff hadn’t had a pay rise for three years, which meant with inflation we were actually getting a pay decrease.”
So request number one was a raise from £6.45 - just above the minimum wage - to the London Living Wage, which was £8.80 at the time.
The pay issue was closely followed by growing concern over zero-hours contracts. Despite being touted by management for their supposed flexibility, staff came to “resent the instability. You could start the week with 30+ hours on the rota but end up only working 20. Often you would be called on the day and told you weren’t needed. This also happened while you were at work, if it was quiet people would be told to go home.”
Knowing the issues, Eve and a couple of her workmates drafted a letter laying out their concerns. This was then “sent round via email to all the other Everyman sites in London asking anyone who agreed with the approach we wanted to take to reply saying ‘yes’.” Then, using a dummy email address, they “sent the letter to management with all the names of those who agreed attached.”
Looking back on it Eve believes, “This may have been a mistake, as it would probably have been better to keep the list anonymous”. Although, in any case, “almost all the staff in London signed it and we believed it was a good show of force.”
And why did they decide to focus on the London Living Wage?
“We were only able to get hold of the emails for London staff we thought it was best to concentrate on London.”
At no point did Eve and her workmates expect management to respond with offers of champagne and puppies, but they were surprised “just how angry” management became:
“Despite the letter carrying the names of almost all the staff in the London, the regional manager demanded to know who had written the letter. She also said that we had gone about it in a completely wrong way, saying we should have spoken to her directly rather than emailing the executives. This was because she spends her whole time trying to hide the discontent amongst the workforce from the directors, who thought everything was hunky-dory. That is, by the way, why we went over her head, we knew she wouldn’t help us.”
For anyone with experience in workplace organising, management's response won't come as a surprise. It's the classic carrot and stick: try to single out perceived leaders while offering some tokenistic concessions. As we'll see, the stick came first; the carrot was to come later.
So what happened from there?
For one, Eve and her workmates got in contact with BECTU, the union which organises cinema workers. BECTU, it’s worth noting, enjoys a reputation for being fairly militant and more democratic than a lot of other trade unions.
Eve informs me that neither she nor her workmates “had ever had anything to do with a union before.” So where did the idea come from? “It's when we saw what BECTU were doing to help the Curzon workers.”
And how did they know about what was happening at the Curzon? Was there any direct contact at that point?
According to Eve, Everyman staff had passed around a New Statesman article laying out what workers had so far accomplished at Curzon.
Eve and her workmates began to recruit to the union. Along with a BECTU rep, they'd meet every three weeks in a pub. The meetings were open to Everyman workers across London.
But organising wasn't without its problems. Despite having a “fairly continuous, close knit, workforce” at Eve's site, “other sites had high turnover and the majority of the new employees were, understandably, unwilling to get involved.” From there, fear and apathy were the major stumbling blocks:
“People felt unsure as to what they would have to do and worried about losing their job. With others it was solely apathy that led to them not getting involved, people who agreed totally whenever you spoke to them but then would always have ‘forgotten’ to join up for some reason or other.”
And how were those apathetic folks dealt with? Were there any problems beyond apathy? Any co-workers who were actively against the union drive?
At Eve's site things were pretty solid: no brown-nosers and close contact meant they “could speak to people directly and try to convince them”. At the other locations, things were a bit more complicated. Mainly the issue was communication: “We only had a handful of union members at different sites and so had little way to contact other staff.”
Snitching wasn't an explicit problem, “but there was a quite open relationship between staff and management so I presumed that they were informed at points. We tried to keep management out of it at our site and although they were aware they kept out of it and let us get on with it.”
Eve and her workmates eventually reached 30% union membership across the capital. At that point “we gave our rep the go ahead to contact Everyman and state that the union and would be pushing for recognition.” Yet, Despite the numbers, management's “dismissive behaviour” wasn’t stopping.
Then came the Guardian article.
Eve relates, “Our union rep was also working with Curzon and he got in contact with the Guardian about the zero-hour contracts”. Guardian readers are, according to Eve, Everyman's “target audience”, so when this bombshell...
...came out, the Living Wage campaign at Everyman really began to heat up.
Interestingly, Everyman's BECTU members “weren’t actually informed it was going to go public. We only knew when we saw the article”. But Eve still believes the article “did work in our favour” as management, “seeing their name mentioned alongside McDonald's, Tesco, and Sports Direct, definitely began to take our demands more seriously.”
Staff were quickly granted an open meeting a few days later, an “open” forum where all staff had a chance to raise concerns.
And then, nothing.
When management finally responded, staff were informed of a “minimal and derisory” increase of twenty-five pence – far, far short of the London London Wage they'd requested.
“When we protested we were reminded that this wasn’t a meeting, it was just an announcement. As far as management were concerned the issue was settled.”
You can still hear the anger in Eve's voice when she discusses this pittance of a raise from £6.45 to £6.70 an amount that, “considering inflation, equalled an actual rise of about 10p.”
Everyman staff were not to be bought off so cheaply. Union activity continued.
What was management's attitude toward the union? Did it differ from their attitude toward the collective voice of the workforce? Did they draw a distinction?
"They never really said anything directly to us about the union. The only mention was at one meeting where the CEO said 'I don't want to be dealing with this outside of the workplace, I don't want someone else deciding what I do with my business. I would rather decide it with you.' We obviously weren't allowed any input into the decisions the company made."
Anyone with experience in workplace organising will be all too familiar with lines like these. In the early stages of any organising drive, management rarely fail to '3rd party the union' – try to make it appear as some sort of alien force existing above and outside the workforce itself. Would-be workplace organisers take note.
So with the union drive in full swing, I ask Eve about the atmosphere at Everyman? What was it like? She responds in one word: "horrible", but continues,
"We were happy to be standing up to them but the fear that they could just sack us at any moment, the way in which they drew things out, and the general animosity began to take its toll on us all.”
The bosses, for their part, seemed unable to decide on a consistent line for countering the union. Eve relates one of those beautiful moments of management honesty:
"In one of our meetings, the area manager actually responded to our questions about the low level of the pay rise as ‘the harsh reality of capitalism’. When asked if she cared that Everyman paid less than all of its direct competitors she just shrugged her shoulders and said 'not really'"
And what about the relationship with low-level managers? According to Eve, it was mixed. At her site, duty managers – supervisors without hiring and firing power – "fully backed involvement", attended organising meetings, and joined the union.
At other sites, where organised workers "had less of a voice”, this same grade of staff “were more timid, even with the knowledge that they would be anonymous.”
What's interesting here is the pull workers on the shop floor exerted on this lowest level of management. It was essentially the workers' level of organisation that carried along their supervisors.
But senior management weren't blind to these dynamics, either. As Eve tells me, one of the biggest issues workers faced was being sent home early on slow days. When it came time to do this, the bosses always delegated to the lowest rungs of management:
“The company knew that we liked our managers and used them as a screen for any horrible new thing they introduced or any perks they removed. If your friend tells you that you have to go home early because his boss has just told them, then you find it hard to tell them to f*ck off.”
So did it change at all, did the workers succeed stopping management from sending workers home early?
“Yes, for a time. Although it actually led to them decreasing hours for everyone instead, just to be safe. They would rather have terrible service and have to pause the film than pay a couple of extra staff. It was a joke, people would get their orders up to one hour into the film. Not fun for staff or customers.”
Was anyone fired or disciplined for standing up on the job? Eve says, “not directly, no”. However, she does relate a story about one member of staff “who was more involved in the union” and who, after forcing the issue of holiday entitlement, “received far less hours because of it”.
At this point I asked Eve about her impression of BECTU as a union? Did they encourage or discourage taking action?
Eve replies that she has “a bit of a mixed idea of BECTU”. Their union rep was “useful and energetic” and, overall, she says BECTU was “helpful and encouraging”.
That said, Eve also tells me that workers were not offered much in the way of training and there was no attempt to create shop stewards at the cinema level.
How about in relation to other organised cinema workers? Did BECTU help facilitate contact with their members at the Ritzy or Curzon?
Eve says that some of her “colleagues met up with some of the Curzon workers once or twice” and her organising committee even “spoke about getting members from Curzon to picket outside Everyman and vice versa but nothing went further than that.”
Other than that, Eve says there weren't any attempts to reach out to customers, folks in the community, or non-cinema workers. Why not? Staff did discuss it, but the idea was dropped when “longer-serving employees” raised concerns that “in our contracts there was something about divulging information to customers being a sackable offence or something.”
How about an escalation strategy? Had that been discussed at all amongst those who organized the petition or who later joined the union?
Unfortunately, the answer to this seems to be not really, although Eve does emphasize that once they made contact with BECTU, workers “hoped they would be able to provide us with some guidance.”
So, I ask Eve, what would have been the ideal outcome?
According to Eve, “none of us” actually expected to get the living wage. Instead, Everyman workers “hoped to force union recognition on Everyman so that we would have more strength in our push for better wages and contracts.”
They also hoped to reform Everyman's contract system by ensuring workers had an option to choose an hours-based contract. However, for those who might choose to remain on zero-hours, the goal was to make the contract an actual expression of flexibility and not just a tool “to allow the company complete power over its employees.”
Instead, alongside the aforementioned 25 pence raise, management created a new “senior hospitality” position which would pay £7.00. Yet, even this modest concession “turned out to be a lie.” Despite management's promise that this role would be available to “anyone who had enough experience” with “no limit to the number of people promoted”, very few workers were ever allowed to reach this coveted new position.
Similarly, It was at this point management mentioned their intention to stop using zero-hours contracts in three years, as they expected the government to make them illegal - an event that still leaves Eve incredulous: “I mean, it begs the question: if it is going to be illegal, why carry on for three years?!”
And this is where the story of worker organisation at London's Everyman cinemas ends. As Eve puts it, “by the time this was announced we were all exhausted and, unfortunately, union activity died away afterwards.”
So, in retrospect, what was the main mistake made during the campaign?
Eve has trouble pinning down one specific thing. As she puts it: “We were all completely new to this, so every step we took was a new one.” But when pushed, she concedes that “keeping up enthusiasm at other sites” was a challenge. So while things were solid with Eve and her immediate workmates, the other sites “weren't unified at the same level”. At an honest assessment, there were often only “two solid people” at the other cinemas. This also had the unfortunate impact of creating the impression that there were a “small group pulling the strings” behind the unionisation drive.
Yet despite all this, Eve still believes that if the campaign “had kept on going in a fashion similar to Curzon we could have really achieved something.” And witnessing the more recent experience of the Ritzy cinema workers – who undertook eleven strike days in their effort to secure the London Living wage – she's been re-evaluating the approach her and her co-workers took toward taking action.
While industrial action was briefly discussed in the abstract, the assumption was one of building the numbers and then taking action. However, “seeing what happened at the Ritzy has displaced some of those fears” and, if she were to do it again, she'd hope that taking action could attract people to the union instead of the other way around.
I had one final question for Eve: what advice would she have for other low-wage workers?
Eve’s upbeat in her response: “Do it, basically.” Despite the “disorganised, inexperienced approach” at Everyman, she emphasises that her and her workmates were not without their achievements. She continues by recommending that everyone should join a union and begin “sounding people out” at work:
“Even if your workmates don't join a union with you, at least you're getting an idea where you stand. And then you go from there.”