Theresa May was put on the spot at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, when MP Helen Hayes asked about workers striking at the Picturehouse cinema chain.
May’s struggle to answer the question – halfway through, she lost her voice and had to take a sip of water – merely drew attention to the the vacuousness of her answer, that the government was “taking the right decisions to ensure we’re growing the economy and providing those jobs”.
Hayes criticised May’s response, saying: “It’s not clear to me that she understood the question, but she certainly didn’t answer it.”
The issues at the heart of the dispute have been going on for years. In that time, it has attracted high-profile support from figures such as Ian McKellan and Ken Loach. After previous industrial action in 2014, the workers had earned a 26 per cent increase in pay. Yet Picturehouse has refused to grant other demands, such as reform of the sickness pay system, recognition of trade union Bectu across all sites, and payment of the London Living Wage – an independently-set level considered to be the amount an employee and their family need to live in the capital.
Cineworld, the company that owns Picturehouse cinemas, made a post-tax profit of £82m in the 2016 financial year, during which time its CEO Moshe J Greidinger was paid £2.6m. With these figures, it’s no surprise that the company’s continued rebuffs to worker demands for the London Living Wage – currently £9.75 an hour – have been unpopular.
In addition to the demands on pay and conditions, workers are angry that four Bectu representatives have been fired on what Hayes calls “very spurious grounds”. The sackings are being challenged at an employment tribunal.
While the Prime Minister can assert as she did at PMQs that “it’s about a relationship between employers and employees”, the strike has begun to take on greater significance since the election. Labour can point to a range of measures in its manifesto – a £10-an-hour minimum wage, and a rollback of recent legislation curbing trade union rights – which would have met most of the workers’ demands.
Labour MPs, including Hayes and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, have joined the Picturehouse strikers on the picket lines and signed Early Day Motions in their support. There has also been significant support from local Labour Party and Momentum branches.
As representatives of the wider issues around low pay and poor working conditions – according to auditors KPMG, nearly a quarter of UK workers earn below the Living Wage – the strikes have received more attention than they might otherwise have done.
They are also providing a test of the power of unions at a time when their influence is thought to be waning. Bectu – the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union – says that across all of the Picturehouse sites, membership has gone up by about 50 per cent since October to around 320. This includes roughly 90 per cent union membership at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton where the strikes began. Gerry Morrissey, Bectu’s general secretary, says that “all union members are on strike”, adding: “We have no intention of abandoning these members.”
Liam Cooper, a local Labour member who has organised community picketing in support of the strike, said: “We’ve had a great response – every night we turn large numbers of customers away and we’ve even recruited new campaigners from the picket line.”
It’s little surprise that many of those involved in the industrial action at Picturehouse also want a change of government. One worker says she thinks “the fact that this dispute spanned Brexit, and then the general election, meant that people are starting to see it as a wider political thing”. She adds that many of the strikers had been active in supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
For low-paid workers, the increases they are asking for are of huge personal significance. But it is also clear that many hope their actions can bring about political change, and better pay and conditions across the country. Yannis Gourtsoyannis, one of the leaders of the junior doctors’ strike and a member of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group, said the Picturehouse dispute was “a direct result of government policy, as the Conservatives and their allies in business enforce austerity throughout the public and private sectors”. He added: “The best, and most crucial weapon against these plans is sustained and concerted industrial action.”
Labour MPs are hopeful that issues such as the strike can open up splits in the government and threaten the Conservatives’ slim margin. Hayes said that “messages in the general election campaign around low pay, and around the impact of low pay on many, many thousands of people across the country are cutting through”. She added: “Some members on the government benches are feeling the pressure of that issue from their own constituencies, and are starting to think twice about government policy.”