Ritzy owners decided ‘guilt’ of union staff before disciplinary hearings, tribunal finds

Union members at an  arthouse cinema were unfairly sacked by bosses who had assumed their guilt before hearing their case, a tribunal has decided.

An employment hearing at Croydon, has ruled that staff at Picturehouse’s Ritzy cinema were unfairly dismissed in June 2017 – but it decided the activists had not been dismissed because of their being union members.

The unanimous finding of unfair dismissal, which applies to two of the three applicants, comes amid a long-running industrial dispute over Picturehouse’s failure to pay the Living Wage. The cases were heard in March this year.

Two of the applicants had sufficient length of service to bring a claim of unfair dismissal; the third representative was employed for less than two years and was therefore unable to bring this claim.

The tribunal ruled – by two votes to one – against the three representatives’ claim that their dismissals were automatically unfair due to the employer’s victimisation of them for their trade union activities.

Gerry Morrissey, head of BECTU, said: “We’re obviously satisfied that the tribunals have found that our members were right to bring the complaint of unfair dismissal. The judgment is clear that Picturehouse management showed a lack of neutrality and assumed the guilt of our representatives.

“We are very disappointed, however, by the tribunals finding that our representatives’ trade union activity was not central to Picturehouse’s decision to dismiss.  We find this hard to accept given the leading role which Ritzy representatives have played in our long-running dispute with the company. We believe that the company took advantage of the circumstances to dismiss BECTU activists.”

The sackings followed an email sent in April 2017 to all BECTU members at the Ritzy saying: “we are also going to start pushing cyber-pickets”.

Cyber-picketing is potentially unlawful activity and when union officials became aware of the email, all members were officially advised of the serious nature of such activity should it be undertaken.

The employer disciplined the staff representatives for failing to alert management to the email and to take any steps to prevent such activity and that had not been open or transparent up to the point of dishonesty during the investigation. Six Ritzy representatives were investigated in a process which led to three dismissals in June 2017. A fourth representative was dismissed later and a further tribunal hearing is pending.

The tribunal’s judgment reads:

“The notes of the meetings show a lack of neutrality at the investigation and disciplinary stages. There was an assumption of guilt on the part of the claimants and, expressly during the disciplinary meeting, Mr O’Connor [Picturehouse Regional Manager] stated that the onus was on them to prove in effect their innocence.

“There was a failure at all stages of the process for the respondent to properly engage with the nature of the claimants defence.

“Further, we conclude that the penalties applied to both claimants were outside the band of reasonable responses. Accordingly, in a number of respects the dismissals were unfair.

“All members of the tribunal agree that the background union activities of the claimants played a part in the decision-making of the respondent. The majority accepts however on the balance of probabilities that the principal reason the claimants were dismissed was what Mr O’Connor and Mr Jones [Vice-President of Operations, UK & Ireland, Cineworld Cinemas Ltd] regarded as their misconduct rather than their union activities, the reason advanced by the respondent.”

Vicky Phillips, head of employment rights at Thompsons’ Solicitors said: “We are delighted to have assisted BECTU to secure victory for two of their members dismissed by Picturehouse. The case stands as a warning for employers who close their minds to what employees say in their own defence. We are pleased that a minority of the panel thought that trade union reasons were the reason for dismissal. This case once again shows how difficult it is for such claims to succeed.”

A leading representative from the Picturehouse workers said: “If anyone should be fired for dishonesty it is Picturehouse and Cineworld bosses. It’s now proven by the tribunal that they were biased from the beginning. Also since the sackings last year many striking sites have been chronically understaffed which puts huge strain on remaining staff members.”

A date for a further hearing to determine the  compensation due to the two BECTU representatives has yet to be agreed.

The dispute with Picturehouse, which runs 23 venues across the UK and is owned by cinema giant Cineworld, continues.

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