On a grey Sunday in late December, cinema-goers visiting the Hackney Picturehouse were greeted by an unusual sight: its workers banging drums outside its imposing façade and angrily shaking green placards at their employers; their signs reading ‘Living Staff, Living Wage’ and ‘£835 Million Profit’.
Increasingly frustrated with their pay and working conditions, and their employer’s refusal to negotiate, staff at the Hackney Picturehouse balloted for strike action last September – and have since been on strike 13 times. Last weekend they struck again together with three other Picturehouses in the capital, after renewing their strike mandate in another ballot.
Their fight is a response to the stark fact facing most Londoners: huge increases in living costs, far outstripping wages. Rents rose on average 19% over the last five years.
The Hackney staff are campaigning to be paid the London Living Wage – currently set at £9.75 an hour – which is set independently of the government using evidence about living standards. They are also asking for full sick pay for all staff and improved maternity and paternity leave.
“Part of this campaign is to keep the cinema operating in a way that provides the same experience for future staff” – staff representative Alisdair Cairns.
Although staff stress that on the whole they enjoy working at Picturehouse, the dispute has become a bitter one, with Picturehouse management refusing to negotiate and bringing in staff from the chain’s other cinemas to keep Hackney Picturehouse open during strikes.
“I’ve had this job longer than any other, I’ve met some of my best friends there, and it’s been a really positive experience,” says staff representative Alisdair Cairns. “Part of this campaign is to keep the cinema operating in a way that provides the same experience for future staff.”
Cairns is a slightly-reserved 29-year-old who works part-time on the front-of-house team at Hackney Picturehouse, as well as freelancing as an audio engineer, writing and recording music, and working as a pizza chef. He says he became involved in the campaign initially as one of Hackney’s reps in the Forum, Picturehouse’s in-house company union where he took part in pay negotiations. Like others he became disillusioned with the Forum – which another member of staff described as a “stooge” – particularly when in the 2015-2016 negotiations its president accepted the company’s pay offer despite staff having turned it down in three successive ballots.
“At that point staff were frustrated with their pay and how they felt powerless to do anything about it,” says Cairns. But they’d seen the campaign at the Ritzy, and got in touch with workers there – and started recruiting to staff to the BECTU trade union. When they had around half of staff as members of the independent union, they formally asked management to increase their pay, but management refused to meet them – and is still refusing to recognise BECTU. “We were left with no alternative,” says Cairns. Staff who voted in the ballot unanimously supported strike action.
“None of the Hackney staff had ever been involved in any sort of strike action before our first walk-out in October,” says Joseph McGee, a 22-year-old who works three shifts a week to support himself through his full-time university course. “The idea of downing tools and walking out of work felt impossible to me until it first happened. To then be greeted by a line of press photographers while we all stood there awkwardly posing with campaign placards made the situation feel even more alien.” Cairns adds that they are all so new to this that “every step is a challenge”.
McGee used to work four shifts a week, but says this became unmanageable on top of his studies, a Media and Communications BA at Goldsmiths. “Getting in at 1am on weeknights is not ideal,” he says. But with his parents unable to support him, he has no choice, adding “I don’t think anyone who studies should be forced to work.”
For McGee, Picturehouse being bought by Cineworld – for £47m, in 2012 – has created tensions at the cinema and brought home the need for a fightback, with increasingly poor communication between the top and bottom of the hierarchy. But he says it is also about a “sense of justice – this is a multimillion pound organisation that could afford to pay the London Living Wage – that’s been a big catalyst for us.” Cineworld made a post-tax profit of £84m in 2015.
The Hackney Picturehouse is a four-screen cinema which opened in 2011, replacing the notorious Hackney Ocean music venue that had previously used the former Methodist hall and library. The cinema’s management say of the strike that they are disappointed that what they say is a “minority of staff” has “chosen to strike for an unrecognised union.”
The Picturehouse says it pays its staff well above the minimum wage – which is £7.20 an hour for over 25s, or £6.95 an hour for over 21s – with starting rates for its London staff of £8.77 an hour. It also says that pay increases for front-of-house staff have “far outstripped inflation over the last few years.” However McGee says, “I’ve only been in London two or three years but even in that time I’ve seen the cost of living rise hugely – rent particularly.” He says blunt calculations about inflation can’t capture the increase in living costs for most people and that pay hasn’t kept pace: “I have to stretch the money I get as far as I can.”
“It would be like coming up for air” – Joseph McGee.
The Picturehouse also emphasises that it offers staff a choice between guaranteed-hour and zero-hour contracts – which have attracted controversy nationally in recent years. Cairns, himself on a zero-hour contract, agrees that Picturehouse has mostly handled the contracts well, and many staff are happy with them.
The campaign is growing: Hackney was already campaigning together with workers at the Ritzy – another part of the Picturehouse chain, where strikes in 2014 won a 26% pay rise – and has now been joined by the Crouch End and Picturehouse Central cinemas. What difference would getting the living wage make for them? “For me, on three days a week, that would be around £100 a month – it would make a huge difference,” says McGee. “It would cover my weekly food shop … it would be like coming up for air.”
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