No "spirit of 45" for the workers at the liberal intelligentsia's favourite cinemas

The workers at the Curzon cinemas are turning to unions to help challenge their poor wages and zero-hours contracts.

 

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.

The poster for Ken Loach's "The Spirit of '45", which Curzon cinemas are celebrating.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred