It’s the sort of David versus Goliath contest that has punters flocking to the cinema. But the story of the Living Staff Living Wage dispute, currently being fought by BECTU members against Picturehouse Cinema and its parent company Cineworld, should have you running away from the silver screen.
For nearly a decade staff at Picturehouse have been battling for the living wage – the Living Wage Foundation sets this at £9.75 an hour in London and £8.45 for the rest of the UK.
In 2016 Cineworld declared profits of £93.8m. It is the second-largest cinema circuit in Europe with more than 2,000 screens, but while Cineworld CEO Moshe J. Greidinger earned more than $2m last year, many Picturehouse staff struggle to pay their rent.
The dispute has seen as many twists and turns as a Hollywood drama. In 2014, following high-profile industrial action organised through media and entertainment union BECTU* and after seven years of campaigning, the staff at the Brixton Ritzy in south London gained a 26% pay rise and an agreement with Picturehouse (and owner Cineworld) to renegotiate towards the living wage in June 2016.
But for over a year the company has refused to pay the living wage at the Ritzy. Three union representatives there have been fired, a move BECTU is calling trade union dismissals.
Neither will the company agree to recognise BECTU as the staff union in the other Picturehouse venues that have now joined the campaign: Crouch End, Central, Hackney and East Dulwich in London, and Brighton, East Sussex.
“What Picturehouse is doing to avoid recognition is hiding behind a body that it set up, The Staff Forum,” explains Alisdair Cairns, from the Hackney Picturehouse, speaking on behalf of BECTU’s Picturehouse representatives.
“It is a staff association, with no trained officials, which provides feedback between workers and head office.
“But speaking to staff at Picturehouse cinemas across the country I know we want more than that,” he continues. “We want a trade union that is actually going to provide genuine assistance in fighting for fairer terms and conditions of our employment and have the experience and expertise to be able to do that.”
This desire is evident from the growing BECTU membership across Picturehouse sites, up by 50% to about 320 in the past year. Commitment shows no sign of waning – in a recent ballot members voted in huge numbers to continue strike action.
You can join a list of high-profile voices – including actors Ian McKellen and Susan Sarandon and film director Ken Loach – and get involved in a campaign that is now also contributing to the wider discussion of the need for a living wage in the wider economy.
The affected members are calling for a boycott of all Picturehouse and Cineworld cinemas until management agrees to recognise and enter into meaningful discussions with BECTU.
“We’re asking for people to boycott Picturehouse and Cineworld to show them that the public support us and and the idea that the company should be paying their staff fairly,” Cairns says.
He adds that as well as telling friends, family and colleagues why you’re boycotting, it’s important to let Picturehouse and Cineworld know, too.
“It’s incredibly helpful if people who are boycotting can let the company know they are doing it, by sending an email or tweeting at them at the company head offices.”
* BECTU is now a sector of Prospect, after both unions merged in January 2017.