The Curzon is showing The Spirit of '45. It must be the liberal intelligentsia’s favourite venue. The popcorn is gourmet and the folding seats are deep, thick and blue. After the show, Q&As are hosted with progressive heroes like Ken Loach and Danny Boyle, and the clink of glasses mixes with the sound of animated chatter. Coutts cards are common, free-thinking principles are a must and Petis Chablis is £8.50 a glass. The Curzon is more than a cinema. It’s a statement of identity.
But for the staff who put in the shifts, the Curzon means something different. Short staffed and short-changed, the young workers propping up these cinemas are stagnating on poverty wages and zero-hour contracts. They man the box offices, staff the bars, clean the screens, support Q&As and cash up – but they can’t afford the wasabi peas they serve. On £6.62 an hour, it would take them the best part of two days to afford a bottle of one of the finer wines behind their counters.
“How can you be a champion of radical thinking and progressive ideas if you are neither interested in meeting staff’s basic costs of living or providing them with basic job security?” asks one worker. “There are no discounts on tickets for OAPs, students or jobseekers, so if you can’t afford it, you’re out. For the Curzon, the spirit of '45 is long gone.”
But now there is something of a revolution underway. Just as interesting as any film showing is the story of how these workers are starting to get organised. Almost half of all staff – about thirty workers - have joined the Bectu union in the last few months. White collar and low skilled, these young people were told they could never be organised - now they are on the brink of leafleting and strike action. What’s more, their lefty, forward thinking customers are likely to be highly sympathetic.
So why has this come about now? Over the last few years, ticket prices have soared by a third to £15 for a standard seat, while wages have barely gone up by 20 pence. Meanwhile the cost of living has shot up dramatically. It takes most staff over an hour just to make up their transport costs, and when their cinemas are only located in areas like Mayfair and Chelsea, there are few cheap options for lunch. The final blow came earlier this month when workers were suddenly told that their shifts would be cut dramatically cut, with no notice.
“I felt like we were being used,” says one worker who remains terrified of being revealed, “When they [head office] needed us when they were crowded and busy we stayed longer and worked harder for them, and now when they say it’s quieter they cut down our shifts.”
For those who rely on the Curzon for their sole form of income, this is devastating. The worker above gets paid £800 a month, while their rent is £821. Until now the only way to make ends meet was to share bills with a partner also in precarious work, but now they will have to give up their flat. Once this worker factors in the increased transport costs of a longer commute, it’s unlikely they can afford to continue working for the Curzon.
“I’m falling behind on rent payments, transport is a big cost and I’ve fallen into debt,” says another co-worker, “I’ve borrowed from banks in the past and taken out loans…. It’s about living weekly. I get paid weekly, and you have to budget, and you’re lucky if it comes out at zero… you can live off that kind of low wage if you have to, but there is no fall back… the smallest thing can put you out of pocket, like if there’s a family emergency and you suddenly need to get a £30 train ticket to visit.”
So far the Curzon’s response has been pretty abysmal. Although local management tries to be supportive – they are now also having to double as projectionists to save money - head office is another ball game. They have refused to recognise the union. In a curt response to the allegations in this article, head office said that they were trying to set up a “forum” for staff to express their concerns and create new higher paid roles, but rent in prime London locations ate up a lot of their profits. Staff should be grateful that they get commission on selling membership to customers (that’s £1 folks). Their full statement read:
Curzon Cinemas are looking into setting up an official forum for employees to feedback their concerns to senior staff. We value our staff very highly, and want to make sure that their concerns are being listened to. It should also be highlighted that Curzon Cinemas do operate an incentivised scheme for staff, whereby they take commission as additional earnings for selling membership to our customers. Curzon Cinemas are actively creating new roles on higher hourly rates within the cinemas, such as the new Events Assistant role, which existing staff can be promoted into.
We hope that the cinemas are a pleasant environment to work within. For example, we have always allowed all staff to watch films without charge. Particularly when operating venues in prime London locations, our overheads such as rent can be very high - so, as a company, we do have to think carefully about our staff costs, in terms of how to create incentivised opportunities and a route for progression. Our goal is to grow as a company, and open new cinema venues - and this will, in turn, create more employment.
“It’s like they speak a whole different language,” said a fellow worker. “A union is the only way to really get our voices heard.”
The heads of the Curzon now have a decision to make. It is true they operate within the law in a manner similar to many other businesses, but it is harder to defend when you make your profits out of a brand that is about free-thinking and fairness. Customers who get a kick out of those values might find they get less of a warm fuzzy feeling when staff start speaking out.