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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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