By Doug Nesbitt
Cineplex announced this week that ticket prices are going up and they’re blaming minimum wage increases.
The media has been giving this story a lot of coverage, but most reports read like a press release from Cineplex. The CBC’s coverage, for instance, repeats the company’s line without doing basic research, talking to workers, or even fact-checking the claims of Cineplex.
The truth is Cineplex dominates Canada’s movie theatre market. They have 78 percent of the movie theatre market and 93% of the Canadian box office.
With their monopoly control of the theatre industry, it’s no surprise Cineplex raked in a record $1.4 billion in revenues last year. And this year they’ve already set a record for first quarter profits.
In fact, they’re making so much money, on the same day they blamed ticket price increases on the minimum wage, they paid their shareholders yet another monthly dividend at 13.5 cents per share.
While making record profits last year, Cineplex’s CEO Ellis Jacob pulled in $5.5 million in total compensation.
Meanwhile, almost 90 percent of Cineplex’s workforce is paid minimum wage. Yes, you heard right. Ninety percent of its 13,000 employees are earning minimum wage. This includes the hundreds of under-18 workers being paid Ontario’s “student” minimum wage of $10.70/hour – seventy cents below the general minimum wage of $11.40.
I asked economist Michal Rozworski what he made of the company’s claims. He replied: “A quick look into Cineplex’s annual reports shows that wages are a small fraction of their total costs. Even with minimum wages going up slowly across the country, ticket prices needed to increase on average by 3 to 5 cents per year to keep up.”
But Cineplex is raising ticket prices anywhere from 22 to 51 cents. Michal observed that “the company could have accepted lower profits. Instead it’s chosen to share its rising profits solely with its stockholders rather than its workers or moviegoers.”
In short, this hugely profitable monopoly is spewing corporate propaganda. It’s an ideological campaign to make sure profits stay in a few wealthy hands instead of being spread out to the workforce. It’s divide and conquer. They’re trying to pit customers against minimum wage workers: “Don’t you dare increase wages or we’ll bleed you at the cash register!”
We shouldn’t expect anything less from Cineplex. In the mid-1990s they made a big cash grab by waging a war on their projectionists so they could boost profits even more.
During the early Harris years, Cineplex locked out Ontario projectionists for five months in 1996/1997 to smash the union and cut wages in half. They made outrageous claims like projectionists were earning $80,000/year when it was really between $30,000 and $40,000. When Cineplex said they couldn’t afford high wages anymore, projectionists pointed out the company was making 560% profit on their concessions. When you’re paying $8 for popcorn and $5 for soda, it’s not hard to believe the profit margins are that high.
In the end, the Ontario projectionists were starved into submission, forced to accept an awful deal they had already rejected midway through the lockout. Across the province, 40 percent of the projectionists’ jobs were slashed, and wages driven down to $15/hour from about $21/hour.
Following the Ontario deal, Cineplex and Famous Players (bought by Cineplex in 2005) instigated a long strike against BC’s unionized projectionists in late 1998. After a year and a half, the BC projectionists were forced to take a massive wage cut, from $34 to $14.50 for a seven screen theatre, or $38 to $15 for more screens. The projectionists union was decisively defeated and many projectionists quit after the lockout to find work elsewhere.
A handful of Cineplex theatres are unionized. One of the unionized Cineplex workers told Rankandfile.ca that management has told the union that they can’t afford wage increases because of the higher minimum wage in Alberta – at the same time Cineplex was making record profits because of blockbusters like Deadpool and the new Star Wars.
Cineplex is just a dedicated poverty-producing, union-busting employer.
Employers vs. the Fight for $15
Cineplex’s propaganda is just the start of a wider ideological offensive by employers against the emerging $15 campaigns in Canada. It’s going to be different than the usual employer whining we hear when the minimum wage goes up a few cents.
This is because we now have $15 campaigns in at least eight provinces, with the Ontario campaign expanding and deepening its support among workers, and the Quebec campaign already producing strikes for $15 at the Port of Montreal and private nursing homes. And in Alberta, the NDP government is pushing ahead with their $15 minimum wage despite hysterical opposition from the usual quarters.
Employers, corporate-backed think tanks, and right-wing media hacks and politicians are going to start pushing back more often.
The same thing has already happened in the United States. The corporate media, politicians, and major employers like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart have all said the same thing as Cineplex: that the minimum wage is going to lead to huge price increases. They’ve also said we’d see big job losses.
The American Fight for $15 movement pressed ahead, fending off these arguments through worker-to-worker organizing. The Fight for $15 is also supported by new research disproving bogus and flawed studies saying the minimum wage leads to job losses.
By keeping its eyes on the prize, the American Fight for $15 has seen McDonald’s and Walmart increase their wages, and $15 minimum wage laws have been won in Seattle, New York state and California. An estimated 17 million workers in the US have benefited from the movement’s minimum wage victories in recent years. That’s helping combat poverty and actually improve local economies through more consumer spending power.
We can also look to Halifax where the same arguments were launched against the baristas who organized three different coffee shops. Union wages and benefits were going to lead to $9 coffees and job losses. None of that happened.
We have the power
We know Cineplex’s claims are bogus. Employers have always kicked and screamed every time workers have organized to demand something: an end to poverty wages, paid sick leave, shorter work hours, equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, anti-discrimination laws. The list is a long one and the battle is never over.
They don’t want to give up their profits – but they’ve adapted to change before.
What they truly fear is how we have won: by organizing and flexing our collective power to become a powerful political force capable of extracting concessions from the employing class and their friends in government.
The minimum wage workers at Cineplex serve the popcorn, clean the theatres, run and repair the projectors, deal with the shitty customers, unload the trucks, and more. Like any other workforce, they can bring the whole damn thing to a standstill. This is the potential power employers fear. They’re already getting nervous about all this talk of $15 an hour.