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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.

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

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