Cinema workers protesting for higher pay in Brixton. Photo: Flickr/M.o.B 68 Cinema workers protesting for higher pay in Brixton. Photo: Flickr/M.o.B 68

Responsibility for the failure to resolve the dispute around the living wage for cinema workers lies squarely with one arrogant and obstinate man

Last week the Picturehouse strikers, members of entertainment union BECTU, completed their first full week of industrial action since the dispute for the Real Living Wage began in October 2016. Their hard-fought campaign has debunked the myth that young people do not understand trade unions and is being rightly held up as a template of how to modernize time-honoured forms of industrial struggle to embrace the power and reach of online protest.

But the dispute has been as puzzling as it has been colourful. Not least because the CEO of Cineworld that owns the Picturehouse chain, Mooky Greidinger, is so entrenched in out-dated thinking that he has turned into a latter-day Nero. Determined to do nothing while his empire burns, he has become a ludicrous example of the employer who would rather destroy his own business than be seen to be listening to his workers.

In the good old days….

In the good old days (were they ever?) organised workers would negotiate with their employers and, if their arguments were being ignored, they would consider strike action as a last resort to make sure they were heard. If the strike looked as if it wasn’t biting because the employer was wealthy enough or well prepared enough to sit it out until the workers were starved back to work, workers would seek to spread the strike to other workers. Newspapers owned by big businessmen would run screaming headlines about bosses being bullied. Unions would scream back about workers being ignored. The former would get huge leader articles in the broadsheets and the latter would be rubbished in the tabloids with unfortunate photographs of, for example, Scargill unintentionally giving a Heil Hitler salute.

Strike action was the one weapon that workers could deploy, with much concerted effort and collective sacrifice, to damage the profits of the employer and fellow employers enough to achieve a balance of power sufficient to get everyone sitting down again to negotiate a solution. Today, the fundamentals have remained much the same but the approach has been radically modernised.

How the dispute developed

The Picturehouse chain of independent cinemas was acquired by Cineworld in 2012. Staff began to campaign for the Real Living Wage (as set by The Living Wage Foundation) in April 2013. Mooky became CEO of Cineworld in February 2014. By August 2014, and 13 strikes later, staff settled for a pay increase of 26% and the promise to meet again in 2016 to negotiate a road map to the Living Wage. When the union sat down again with Picturehouse management in June 2016 there was no road map and no willingness to discuss anything further. 

The industrial action began again in October 2016. The Ritzy strikers were joined by union members from Crouch End, Hackney, Central, West Dulwich and Brighton who went out on strike for the Living Wage but also for union recognition (Ritzy is the only site with collective recognition) as well as for those essential benefits of maternity, paternity, adoption and sick pay that are so badly needed by zero-hour workers struggling to live rather than merely survive.

This year the gap yawns ever wider with the London Living Wage at £10.20 and Picturehouse paying £9.30. Regionally the Living Wage is set at £8.75 and Picturehouse pays £8.36. Cineworld and Picturehouse’s capacity to pay their staff better is not in doubt. In 2016 Cineworld posted profits of £93.8m and Mooky doubled his salary to over £2.5m. At the end of last year, Cineworld announced plans to buy the US chain Regal for close to $4bn. The request that Picturehouse cinemas pay staff at least the Real Living Wage could not be more affordable. Since the dispute began, far less wealthy independent cinemas such as the ICA and the Curzon chain have voluntarily signed up as Living Wage Employers and agreed collective recognition with BECTU.

Picturehouse has not had a coherent response other than it just doesn’t want to pay the Living Wage. It seems that Mooky is behind this intransigence having apparently stated that he refuses to be dictated to by a third party on how he should pay his staff. Intransigence is not new – perhaps he sees himself in the tradition of the great union-busters such as Margaret Thatcher with the miners in 1984/85 and Rupert Murdoch with the printers at Wapping in 1986. The difference is that Thatcher and Murdoch threw everything they had at breaking the strikes in order to win a longterm goal that would enrich them far more. Thatcher wanted to break working class resistance in order to bring in an unfettered free market ideology and Murdoch wanted to dramatically modernise the means of production in the newspaper industry.  It is unclear whether Mooky has any goal at all as the consumer boycott bites into profits, industry condemnation deepens, new cinema openings fall through and the flagship cinema The Ritzy in Brixton – beloved by so many – is beloved no more.

A template in campaigning

As Picturehouse’s reputation goes up in flames, the dispute has become one of the highest profile dispute of the last decade propelled by the extraordinary resourcefulness, creativity and pure chutzpah of these young workers. They immediately established a unique look that became their brand on T-shirts, placards, leaflets, badges and even a reassembled old Reliant Robin complete with loud hailers; they spun premieres into catchy photo opportunities with Star Wars masks, 3 Billboards and sound-bite slogans; they connected seamlessly with broader movements such as LGBT, Black Lives Matter and now women’s issues; they made sure they were invited to countless Labour Party wards, union conferences and Trades Councils across the country including, bizarrely, a Vivienne Westwood conference; Ken Loach wore the Living Staff Living Wage badge on the red carpet at the 2017 BAFTAs and their prolific and colourful social media campaigns overwhelmed any screaming newspapers and built their following across the world.

They have raised support from celebrities in front of the camera (like Susan Sarandon, Mark Rylance and Patrick Stewart) to heavyweights behind the camera (I, Daniel Blake producer Rebecca O’Brien, The Party director Sally Potter and Suffragette director Sarah Gavron). They have the unequivocal support of Sadiq Khan and have had EDMs debated in parliament. Newspaper articles have been consistently positive, including the Evening Standard calling upon Cineworld shareholders to put pressure on Mooky to do the right thing.

The strikers themselves have bought shares and lobbied Cineworld AGMs, inspired by comedian and activist Mark Thomas. They have persuaded film festivals and producers to stop booking Picturehouse venues (Human Rights Watch UK, London Short Film Festival etc.). They have lobbied councils not to award cinema sites to Picturehouse, with the recent notable success in Lewisham where Curzon won the site instead. 

With the help of their union BECTU, they have put pressure on Mooky from every angle – undermining his business deals, undermining his reputation in the industry, undermining public support with a growing public boycott of both Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas – and yet the workers have still not won. As one striker asked, is it because the anti-trade union laws have nobbled the strike?

Expensive lawyers

The legal hurdles that have amassed since Thatcher first started introducing anti-trade union laws in the 1980s have certainly restricted the capacity of the strikers to call on fellow cinema workers to join them and have certainly put a strain on the resources of BECTU, a small specialist union for workers in broadcasting, media and the entertainment industry.

It is worth remembering the complexity of legal requirements that have now built up to put unions off ever supporting their members taking strike action. The main disincentive is that an employer can now obtain injunctions against unions and sue them for damages to their business if the rules are not followed to the letter. Today industrial action can only take place around issues directly affecting the workers involved; ballots have to be conducted in secret by post and not at open meetings with a simple show of hands; a YES vote can only be considered legally acceptable if there has been a turnout of at least 50% (more than a general election and, in important public services, 40% of eligible members and not just those who voted have to have voted YES); workers have to give 7 days’ notice of a postal ballot and 14 days’ notice of industrial action; all workers involved in a ballot need to be identified by their categories or job titles to the employer in advance; an independent scrutineer must be appointed and paid for by the union where there are more than 50 members to be balloted; lawful picketing is restricted to your own workplace and can only be 6 pickets; a ‘picket supervisor’ needs to be appointed and issued with a letter stating the picket is approved by the union; the police need to be notified; you cannot call out other workers on secondary action in solidarity with you and you have to re-ballot after 6 months to prove there is still a YES vote.

Mishcon de Reya (who are, ironically, Living Wage employers themselves) have been paid untold sums by Picturehouse to write countless threatening letters nit-picking around every detail of whether the dispute was lawful, how many strikers can form a picket line, what distance must be maintained between strikers and demonstrators, what responsibility the strikers might have for the behaviour of the demonstrators etc. So, yes, the dispute has illustrated how useful the law is in frustrating any strike action and tying up unions in a massive waste of time and money rebutting lawyers letters, fielding officials to every picket line to ensure the union has a reliable witness should any court case ensue, putting together unfair dismissal cases to go to Employment Tribunal this month to defend the 4 Ritzy union reps sacked last year etc. But it has not deterred the strikers or their union.

How far will Nero go?

Mooky may very well believe that Cineworld is rich enough to go on fiddling while Rome burns. He is based far enough away in Israel, after all, to stuff his fingers in his ears. But when many of Cineworld’s investors (Royal London Asset Management, Aviva, Legal & General, Barclays and Sarasin) pay the Living Wage as do KPMG, which audits Cineworld’s accounts, and Slaughter & May, the group’s legal adviser, and Picturehouse’s main competitors, Curzon – how long can Mooky afford to look foolish? How long before he fans the flames of a viral condemnation?

It is ironic that workers as well as consumers can be more powerful communicators today than past employers ever were. Employers can still rely on newspaper bosses to smear workers who dare to go out on strike but newspapers can be drowned out as they lose circulation and influence. Today, workers have access to a much more powerful PR tool in the shape of the internet that can turn into a raging Hydra of smears against any complaisant Goliath.

Last week a petition went up online calling on Natalie Portman and Gal Gadot to lobby Mooky as a fellow Israeli. It is very polite but online protest, as we all know, can turn very personal too. For as long as the Picturehouse stance makes no sense to workers, employers or consumers then the responsibility for the tone of this dispute can only lie with one arrogant and obstinate man. The next strike days are Thursday 8th March International Women’s Day and Tuesday 13th March outside the Employment Tribunal where the 4 sacked Ritzy reps will be having their case heard.

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