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 Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.