Last weekend, Picturehouse cinema strikes entered their third calendar year. Since September 2016, workers in Hackney, Crouch End, East Dulwich Picturehouses, Picturehouse Central and the Ritzy have been striking for a living wage, full company sick pay and maternity pay, and union recognition. Picturehouse, which is owned by multinational giant Cineworld, has so far refused to negotiate. Now, the strike is at a critical point – and it’s going to need the brains and muscle of the wider labour movement to win.
The latest round of strikes was supposed to be the biggest yet. With morale still high and strikes an almost routine part of life for workers in the unionised sites, we planned to escalate to 13 days of strikes, running from 20 January to 2 February. Most of these were partial strikes – two hour walkouts designed to cause maximum disruption, while limiting the impact on the workers’ working week. The company responded by threatening a lockout at the Ritzy in Brixton, keeping it shut throughout the strike period. This meant that workers, many of whom are on zero hours contracts, would have no income for a fortnight.
Within 24 hours, we raised almost £20,000 for the strike fund – enough to cover the lost wages. Then, with days to go, the company said it would dock a full day’s pay from any striker who walked out on the two hour strike slots – a move which, according to the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union’s (BECTU) lawyers, has been deemed legal by the courts. Rather than strike for the 13 full days, we cancelled the nine days of partial strike action on legal advice and went ahead with a considerably restricted two day strike instead.
Precarious workers’ struggles – in workplaces like Picturehouse and in the gig economy – are fashionable at the moment. But it’s worth pointing out that the obstacles we have faced are testament to the fact that, while these disputes may be described in terms of inspiration and excitement, winning might well owe more to resilience and the long slog. What happened last weekend can be taken as a representation of the dispute as a whole: workers supported by the community and determined to win, but fighting a Goliath union-busting, multinational company and increasingly harsh trade union laws.
In July, I was sacked from my job at the Ritzy along with three other union reps in an attempt to take out key strike organisers. We are now taking the company to tribunal. Union reps have been suspended for leafleting members of the public about the dispute in cinema bars on the basis that this constituted “unlawful picketing”. Just before a strike timed to coincide with the London Film Festival, Picturehouse’s lawyers wrote a letter to BECTU stating that it was “minded to dismiss” anyone who took part in it, i.e. the entire workforce. We called their bluff, and struck anyway. It’s a testament to the courage of the Picturehouse strikers that they did so in the face of such threats.
The result of this onslaught has not been to crush the morale of the strike. The London Film Festival strike went ahead, massively impacting the festival, making headlines, and putting Picturehouse into conflict with the British Film Institutes, who publicly urged them to pay the living wage. In the latest round of balloting, the “yes” vote ranged from 96% to 100%. No worker has left the union in the course of the dispute.
But we should not be naive about the realities of the Picturehouse strike and others like it. For all the colourful picket lines, well-designed banners and quirky placards, our success will depend on our industrial leverage and ability keep the dispute running. The strike will have to spread if it is to win – across the Picturehouse chain and perhaps into the hundreds of Cineworlds across the country. And it will need resources: strike pay and support for an army of precarious workers already on the breadline who are giving and risking a lot to fight for decent conditions.
Picturehouse and Cineworld are confident in the knowledge that they have a reserve of cash and with it the ability to atomise and intimidate would-be union organisers. The only weapon we have at our disposal, in the long run, is collective strength and solidarity. For the strike to continue and spread, we will need the movement to show up – not just with a massive fundraising effort but with a campaign of recruitment and solidarity.
None of this ought to be impossible. The trade union movement and the new wave of left-wing activism have both the resources and the energy. But for their potential to be realised, we need to be clear that the struggles and victories of precarious workers are not a glamorous sideshow; they are a result of hard work, sacrifice and determination and they need your help.
Donate to the Picturehouse strike fund here: