Unpredictable schedules, hazardous working conditions, and the crushing workload of Barbenheimer combined to lead workers at the Prospect Park location of independent Brooklyn theater Nitehawk Cinema to organize a union.

Nitehawk workers gathered by the theater entrance. (Courtesy of the Nitehawk Workers Union)

Last summer, the same-day premieres of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer hit movie theaters across the country like a tsunami. The twin releases, dubbed “Barbenheimer,” scored big at the box office, with Barbie bringing in $162 million in domestic sales on opening weekend, and the R-rated Oppenheimer bringing in $82 million domestically that same weekend as moviegoers flooded into theaters to be a part of the phenomenon.

Nitehawk Cinema’s Prospect Park theater in Brooklyn’s Park Slope was no exception. According to workers at the independent dine-in theater, one of two locations (the other is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), they were exceptionally busy during the first weeks of Barbenheimer’s release.

“We got an email from management forwarding what Warner Brothers had said, which is that we were one of the top-performing theaters in the entire country,” Alana Liu Moskowitz, a server at Nitehawk Prospect Park, said. The August 2023 email, viewed by Jacobin, notes that the twin opening made for the largest weekend in Nitehawk’s twelve-year history. (The Williamsburg location opened in 2011, the Park Slope location in 2018).

But for workers like Moskowitz, the historic summer was a nightmare. Several workers say that management responded to the increased volume of customers by scheduling them to work well beyond their usual hours — with some employees, including part-timers, working for more than ten hours per day, often four days a week, for around a month and a half, without their consent.

“It was a really tumultuous time,” Moskowitz said. “A lot of people were overworked, and a physical altercation happened in the kitchen because we were so understaffed.”

In the email touting the record sales, Nitehawk management alluded to workers’ exasperation, noting that the “workload has been immense” before adding that “there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Yet workers say that staff received no extra pay or incentives for the success, nor evidence that management understood the extent of their frustrations. At a staff meeting that summer, workers who voiced concerns said that management later criticized them for doing so.

“I was pulled into multiple separate meetings afterward, in which I was chastised and tone-policed for the way that I approached things,” Moskowitz recounted. “I was told that it was not appropriate for me to have made my comments at a staff meeting, that all of it should have been an email, that my tone was aggressive and too pointed, and I was passed over for a promotion for lead server the next quarter, with a manager telling other servers that it was because management no longer felt that I was good at handling myself under pressure, citing that staff meeting specifically.”

In addition to scheduling and possible retaliation, workers say they were concerned about inadequate pay and benefits. Starting pay for Nitehawk servers is the state minimum of $10.65 before tips, and only full-time workers are eligible for health insurance. Several workers told Jacobin that they are must choose between paying rent and seeing a doctor. Having exhausted existing avenues for raising concerns, Nitehawk workers did what workers at other independent theaters across the city have done: they looked into unionizing.

Last fall, workers at two of the four New York locations of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, another dine-in theater, voted to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2179. (Another UAW local, Local 2110, represents workers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film Forum.) The Alamo workers, too, cited Barbenheimer as the final straw.

Having heard the news of Alamo’s organizing, Moskowitz went to one of the theater’s unionized locations and walked up to the box office.

“I said, ‘We’ve also been victimized by Barbenheimer,’” she recalled telling the Alamo worker before asking them for the union’s contact information. A few Nitehawk workers spoke to their counterparts at Alamo as well as other recently organized restaurants such as Barboncino, the Crown Heights pizzeria that last year voted unanimously to join Workers United, the SEIU offshoot most known for its Starbucks organizing. After considering their options and assisted by the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, the Nitehawk workers chose to organize with UAW Local 2179, citing the local’s understanding of their needs because of its organizing at Alamo.

‘We’ve also been victimized by Barbenheimer,’ she recalled telling the Alamo worker before asking them for the union’s contact information.

Today, Nitehawk Prospect Park workers delivered a demand letter to management, including Nitehawk director of operations Jessica Giesenkirchen, which lists wages and benefits, scheduling, managerial accountability, and disciplinary protections as priorities for the Nitehawk Workers Union. They say management declined to voluntarily recognize their union. If that remains Nitehawk’s position, they will file union-authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) tomorrow. They say that they have supermajority support for a union, estimating that around 70 percent of the location’s more than one hundred workers, including wait staff, line cooks, bartenders, and porters, have signed union cards. Nitehawk founder and owner Matthew Viragh did not respond to Jacobin’s request for comment on the union drive by the time of publication.

Pandemic Pains

The problems at Nitehawk didn’t start with Barbenheimer. After the theater reopened in 2021 following the early months of the pandemic in which theaters across the city shuttered, workers’ concerns mounted, particularly after the location stopped limiting seating capacity.

Nitehawk also serves liquor, upping the likelihood of workers dealing with unruly or unsafe customers even as COVID remained pervasive in the city. That dynamic was a source of frustration for restaurant and bar staff throughout the country during the pandemic, and it was a problem at the Brooklyn theater too.

Nitehawk founder Matthew Viragh is largely responsible for the end of Prohibition-era laws barring New York theaters from serving alcohol. Viragh hired a lobbyist to push for legislation, and on August 17, 2011, a month after Nitehawk Williamsburg first opened its doors, then governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill allowing theaters to apply for liquor licenses. Nitehawk was the first theater in the state to receive one.

In light of their pandemic-era health and safety concerns, some workers from both Nitehawk locations wrote a letter to management listing demands for workplace changes. But workers Jacobin spoke to, none of whom were yet at Nitehawk at that time, do not believe management made the changes — and they say that at least two workers, one at each Nitehawk location, were fired shortly after sending the letter.

“That first attempt really scared people away,” Moskowitz said. “It’s been kind of a hindrance in our organizing this time around.”

Jacobin asked Viragh about the veracity of these claims and has not heard back at the time of publication.

The summer of Barbenheimer, coming during a small wave of unionization at independent theaters, restaurants, and food-service jobs in the city and across the country, convinced the workers that unionization was their only means of forcing change.

“It was a madhouse,” said server Catherine Coradini of Nitehawk last summer. She recalled staff — some of whom traversed several flights of stairs to service seven screens that are on several floors of the nearly hundred-year-old Art Deco building, which first opened as the Sanders Theater in 1928 — lacking sufficient time off to get a good night’s rest and falling down with exhaustion.

A Nitehawk worker behind the bar at the theater. (Courtesy of Nitehawk Workers Union)

Coradini is also a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), and she cited the experience of seeing the entertainment industry’s writers and actors, as well as the UAW’s autoworkers, striking this past summer as one reason she supports unionization.

“A lot of people are taking note,” Coradini said. “We’re seeing that when workers do have a united voice, they’re able to get better protections, better health care, better wages, and have a higher quality of life than those without it.”

There’s also the matter of the old building’s safety issues. Coradini said that just this week, “there was falling debris in one of the theaters — small particles but still enough to cause discomfort and added difficulty.” Broken air-conditioning is not uncommon, nor is “floor sweat,” which the workers describe as a result of the building’s porous poured concrete that retains moisture and in certain weather becomes extraordinarily slippery, posing a danger to workers and customers alike.

“I remember one time during the summer, the air-conditioning in theater three went out, and the floor was sweating,” said Isobel Mancini, a lead server who has worked at Nitehawk for two and a half years. She said that a manager tried to get the company’s general manager to cancel the next scheduled screening in the theater, but they were told Viragh, Nitehawk’s owner, would have to sign off on such a decision.

“In the end, we did not shut down the theater, and we served in a theater that was eighty-one degrees,” remembered Mancini. She said that workers had to explain the hazards to customers, and that while they put mats down on the floors, it remained a problem. Mancini herself fell several times that day, dropping trays. The issue, she added, has not been fixed. “We just stopped talking about it because the weather changed.”

Viragh did not respond to questions about the alleged hazards presented by the Park Slope building.

Several Nitehawk workers to whom Jacobin spoke said that communication breakdowns aren’t only an issue in moments of crisis like the one Mancini related. Despite the company’s supposed open-door policy, they say that management often responds to concerns defensively, and that Nitehawk’s “virtual suggestion box,” a tool that they were told allows for anonymous feedback, is not in fact anonymous. Several Nitehawk employees alleged that workers have been pulled into meetings with management in response to their “anonymous” suggestions.

“This Is the Only Way We Can Affect Change”

The Nitehawk union doesn’t only include front-of-the-house workers like Moskowitz, Mancini, and Coradini. The back-of-the-house workers who staff the theater’s two kitchens, roughly sixteen people, are unionizing too. As to what issues are motivating them to organize, Malik Smith, a line cook who has worked at Nitehawk for around two years, said that inadequate compensation is at the top of the list.

Members of the newly formed Nitehawk Workers Union pose beneath an awning. (Courtesy of Nitehawk Workers Union)

“Cooking is a very rough industry,” Smith said, “but we’ve got a bunch of people who, because of how threadbare our compensation is, are terrified to use their health insurance and seek medical help, because it’s either deductible or rent and, well, the roof over your head is a little bit more urgent.” Smith said staff have discovered pay disparities as well as a lack of raises accruing to those with seniority compared to more recent hires.

Other concerns include understaffing during peak hours and busy season, not getting one’s promised numbers of hours, and a lack of transparency in communications with management. Smith emphasized that Nitehawk’s compensation and benefits are considered good in the restaurant industry — starting pay for cooks is $20 an hour, and workers receive five paid sick days and five paid holidays — but the disparities between he and his coworkers’ benefits and those enjoyed by management are grating

“They have the means to provide that for us as well, but they just don’t,” Smith said.

While Nitehawk’s front-of-the-house staff are fairly unified in their support for unionization, Smith said that some of the kitchen staff are still making up their minds. Nitehawk’s cooks and porters include workers from a variety of backgrounds: Smith was born and raised in Brooklyn, and he works alongside Mexican workers as well as those from Haitian and West African backgrounds. Weak ties between an establishment’s front- and back-of-house staff are a constant in the industry, and organizing among workers who speak such a vast array of languages is never easy. At least some of Nitehawk’s kitchen staff worry that unionizing may endanger their jobs.

“All the talk about how the law says that if they fire you unfairly, you’re going to be paid back and reinstated down the line doesn’t mean anything when you have bills to pay now,” Smith explained, referencing the NLRB’s paltry mechanisms for penalizing employers who violate workers’ rights.

However, at least among cooks, a job with perpetually high demand in New York, Smith said it hasn’t been too hard to get people on board. “We’re cooks. We’ve always been disgruntled.”

As for why a push for unionization among New York’s service workers is happening now, workers cited the city’s staggeringly high housing costs as a motivating factor.

“The world that we were promised does not exist anymore,” said Moskowitz. “These are not livable wages. We can’t pay our rent, and we can’t be forced to choose between paying our rent and health care. Management has made it clear that they will not take care of us so we will have to take care of each other. Unionization is spreading across industries, and I hope it continues to do so. Workers deserve more rights, and this is the only way we can affect change.”

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