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

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.