Popcorn revolutionaries: the struggle for workers' rights at Curzon cinemas

They may work at the liberal intelligentsia's favourite cinemas, but workers across all Curzon cinema chains have had enough of zero hours contracts, poor pay, and the lack of union recognition.

A small group of workers gather in a dingy pub in central London. It's the middle of a bright morning, but these young cinema staff don't want to be seen. Months after their fight against their employer Curzon was first published in the New Statesman, they are still campaigning for three basic rights: a living wage, stable employment contracts and the recognition of their union. So far, all three of these demands have been refused.

"Leafleting and striking are all on the cards," says Lee, one of the frontline staff. "There will be a response. We want to be positive; we won't do anything without reason. The ball is in their court. We'd love them to take our concerns seriously. We're still up for a conversation."

Located in areas like Mayfair, Chelsea and Soho, Lee works in the box office to serve the capital's liberal intelligentsia who enjoy watching progressive, free-thinking films with an anti-capitalist edge. But if they knew about the conditions of Lee's seven pound an hour work, they might be less keen to come. Although Lee has worked at the Curzon for over eight years, his weekly pay packet leaves him on the edge.

"I have a very small clothing budget, about £50 a year. I get past the weekend and I don't spend any money for the end three days (until pay day). If I need to eat I bring something from home, but generally I buy a lunch for £4 and eat half for lunch and half for dinner."

"It's quite common for the workers here to buy a bag of chips and share them. That's all I have. A bag costs £2, so that's £1 each and I won't have anything else for the rest of the night."

Lee is particularly vulnerable because he also has caring responsibilities for his family, a role which he shuffles around his shifts.

"I got into several thousand pounds of debt (working at the Curzon) and it took five years to pay it off. I had a more expensive rent then and it just built up. If you suddenly have to travel somewhere for family reasons, that's another expense you can't help. Now I'm back on top but we all know the cost of living is going up and if anything changes. I'm on a zero hour contract, I'm going to the media - there's a lot of risks there."

Like one million other people in this country, frontline Curzon workers are employed on zero hour contracts. Those that have been working for more than a few years usually develop a few days work they can rely on, but this informal regularity could be swept away at any time without justification.

As Gus Baker, an organising official from BECTU working with Curzon staff put it, "Zero hours are used as a threat by management - it's like saying you can work these hours, but only if you don't play up."

One worker, let's call her Anna, recently had her hours cut by 20 per cent. Although she had worked at the chain for years and had come to rely on those shifts - unlike more recent employees who scrabble for hours announced at the beginning of each week via email - she was given just three days notice of the change.

"I was angry, because I was trying to create stability and work out what I had to spend every week," she says, "And there was no time to think about it or find something else."

I ask the workers around the table - who come from different branches across London - whether any of them had kids or were thinking about starting a family. The question is met with laughter.

"I can't afford kids!" says a third worker, David. "I would have them if I could but it's out of the question. It's definitely to do with money. You just don't start to think about it because you just know."

The average age of Curzon workers is 22, so for most this is ok. But for workers now in their thirties, things are getting difficult.  Staff say it's hard to find alternative work, because you have to grab hours where you can, even if they clash with interviews and training for new jobs that might give you a better deal in the long term.

Anna is in a better situation than most, but her hours still fluctuate from anywhere between twenty-five to forty-five hours a week. She generally says she earns between 650-950 a month. As for her outgoings, she has to pay £560 a month for rent and bills. Combine that with £140 a month tube travel and £150 a month on food, and you can see she barely breaks even. A sudden unexpected cost tips her over the edge, and many workers report having to move. For those with families abroad, the travel costs are prohibitive.

Workers across all Curzon cinema chains have had enough. A year ago these young, white-collar workers on insecure contracts became some of the first frontline cinema workers to get organised in this country, and they joined the union BECTU. Now union reps say that some 45 per cent of Curzon workers have joined - no small commitment when it costs £5 a month - and a recent survey across the company's eight cinemas found 70 per cent in favour of the union being recognised. So far 1,500 have signed the petition, including famous progressive directors like Mike Leigh.

"For me joining BECTU wasn't just about the pay rise," says Anna, "It wasn't about any one issue. The union can offer me a hearing (on a variety of issues), and a real voice in the company."

Despite this, Curzon's management still refuses to recognise the union. Bosses say that they need to verify the names of union staff members first, but the union doesn't want to hand over names which they feel would put members at risk from retaliation, and have instead called for Curzon to work through ACAS. Now they're at a stalemate, and BECTU is trying to force recognition through the courts.

Meanwhile, relationships with workers are fast becoming fraught. The company set up a "Forum" for workers to air their views, but the workers have started boycotting this because they thought it was "patronising" and failed to make any concrete agreements or get back to workers in a reasonable time frame.

"The head of human resources said she was disappointed about the bad press," said David, "Why wasn't she saddened by our conditions of pay? It was obvious to all of us that these talks and presentations were for their benefit not ours."

Although staff defend their day to day managers - who they say are doing their best under difficult orders - they are furious with the senior management at the head of the company. Rumours are spreading that these top managers are spending an exorbitant amount on consultancy fees, and went out of London for a punting trip last year, and bowling in the capital this year. As David put it, "Wouldn't it be nice for the cinema workers to be invited too?"

When all of the above allegations were put to Curzon, they provided the following response, which is here reproduced in full:

As a company, we recognise the critical role our employees play in delivering the Curzon experience. Our employees have always been - and will continue to be - a point of differentiation for Curzon. Having a knowledgeable, engaged and enthusiastic team is an integral part of our curated offering.*

We recognise and are aware that we have some dissatisfied employees and as a responsible employer we recently set up a democratically elected Employee Forum, which enables our employees to talk to us openly and give us feedback about their experiences working for Curzon. In turn, we ask for input on proposed policies and procedures.

We rarely place job adverts and we have a very low turnover of staff because the brand means something to people working in the film industry. In the coming months we intend to build on this by increasing hourly paid staff rates by 5.7% for all Front of House London employees and significantly ahead of minimum wage rates, a review of zero hour contracts on a cinema-by-cinema basis, the introduction of a benefits package for all staff later in the year and a commitment to begin a pension scheme by April 2014.

Zero hour contracts are standard practice across the leisure and hospitality industry but we deplore the misuse of such contracts. As a company we use zero hours contracts responsibly: employees are consulted on their availability, given advance notice of rotas, work consistent weekly hours and, with the exception of emergencies, are not required to attend work at short notice. Employees across the company, regardless of their contract, are entitled to the same benefits such as holiday and free cinema tickets. Our employees are paid weekly, which ensures that they receive a regular income.

We are also actively looking to expand and we wish to do so by providing enhanced employee opportunities to our current employees at existing and new Curzon Cinemas.

As for the workers, they aren't satisfied with this response. In particular, they point out that the much of the pay rise given was scheduled to happen anyway with inflation, and the rates they do get now are still well below the living wage.

But these workers are not going to give up. Despite difficult working conditions across different cinemas with odd hours and little time, no money or HQ, they are growing the union membership and getting more organised. They've even started meeting workers from the cinema chain Everyman, who are in a similar position. The aim is to improve conditions not just here, but across the board.

"I think head office's treatment of us is shocking, particularly given their image (as a progressive cinema chain)" says Lee, "The idea that they would not even recognise my right to join a union is disgusting. They have an opportunity to turn this around and set a good example. It's up to them.

They (the Curzon) would be an ideal company to lead the living wage. They can afford to do it, and they can make other companies follow."

All names have been changed to protect identities

Looking into a cinema projector. Photo: Dale Mastin on Flicker, via Creative Commons

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

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue