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3 October 2017

Picturehouse is threatening to sack workers striking over the living wage

A blockbuster drama about workers' rights. 

By Michael Chessum

For most trade unionists, it is rare to encounter behaviour from an employer that genuinely shocks. Paying low wages and denying employees sick pay and maternity pay might surprise those who have always enjoyed sheltered, salaried lives – but it’s routine these days. When the arthouse cinema chain Picturehouse suspended all union reps at its Brixton branch, and then sacked four of them, some punters might have been shocked. But then victimisation for trade union membership is also predictable when you’re running an effective industrial dispute. 

Monday’s revelations, however, are exceptional. Leaked correspondence between Picturehouse’s lawyers and the trade union BECTU shows that the company is attempting to prevent workers from continuing their strike for living wage, sick pay, maternity pay and union recognition this Wednesday.

Picturehouse claims that the ballot for industrial action, which got a 96 per cent yes vote last month, was invalid because it already pays a living wage. The letter separately argues that Picturehouse has already agreed a pay deal with its in-house staff forum, which has collective bargaining rights. (The independent trade union BECTU is only recognised at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton). “Our client is minded”, the letter adds “to dismiss any employee who takes part in the strikes.”

The idea that Picturehouse pays a living wage will come as news to its staff, who have been striking across five cinemas for over a year to demand the rate, currently set at £9.75 an hour. Picturehouse only pays £9.30 an hour in London, but claims pay exceeds this when breaks are excluded. As BECTU points out in its response, this interpretation of the Living Wage definition is not one backed up by the Living Wage Foundation itself. In fact, the Living Wage Foundation believes that if an employee is entitled to a paid break, according to their employment contract, the break should be paid. Nonetheless, hundreds of low paid workers across four cinemas now face the prospect of being sacked if they take part in strike action on Wednesday and on eight further days during the London Film Festival. 

This kind of heavyhanded approach seems at odds with Picturehouse’s outward appearance. The Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London, is a community venue, hosting campaign and charity fundraisers and showing independent films alongside the blockbusters. Picturehouses tend to be arthouse cinemas attached to trendy cafes and bars, serving flat whites and craft beers to Guardian-reading liberals. But all is not as it seems. Since 2012, Picturehouse has been owned by Cineworld – a gigantic company which recorded £93.8m in post-tax profits last year. 

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Would Picturehouse really follow through on its threat to sack the striking workers? Among the strike’s organisers, there is a real sense that they might, at the very least as a means of picking off union activists. “The ballot clearly is valid and if anyone does get sacked they are likely to win at tribunal,” one member of the strike’s organising committee tells me. “But Cineworld can afford to spend loads of money losing in court and sacking people if they think that’s a means of shutting down the strike. That’s what they’ve already done with the union reps at the Ritzy.”

Union organisers tell me that this is not the first time they have received legal threats. Activists say that when strikers played rap music at a strike at Hackney Picturehouse, the union got another letter from the lawyers stating that this music which included “racial” language was intimidating and made the entire picket illegal. 

In a statement, Picturehouse said: “We act in accordance with the law and respect employees’ rights to strike when lawful. We have respected previous industrial action called by BECTU, despite it not being the recognised union of Picturehouse.” It said that it believed “staff will not partake in any unlawful action against the company”. On the eve of the strikes, it now looks overwhelmingly likely that they will go ahead.

There is a growing understanding of the significance of the Picturehouse strikes as a beacon of hope in organising the world of precarious workplaces. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has put out a statement, saying he is “shocked at the way they have been treated by Picturehouse, and to threaten them with dismissal if they go on strike is disgraceful.” McDonnell has been a regular visitor to Picturehouse workers’ picket lines and has said he will visit them again in the latest round of strikes.

The coming weeks will represent a significant escalation in the dispute between Picturehouse and its unionised staff. The new wave of strikes is set to disrupt the London Film Festival, and if mass sackings do take place, the response of workers and their supporters is likely to be fierce. The wider labour movement should watch carefully, and shine a light on the tactics being deployed by Picturehouse. Workers at Picturehouse may have been threatened with legal letters, but their most effective defence will come from solid strike action and solidarity from the wider movement.

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