Amherst Cinema employees seek to unionize

  • Amherst Cinema CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/25/2022 8:57:38 PM
Modified: 4/25/2022 8:56:13 PM

AMHERST — Wages, schedules and other work conditions, including safety around COVID-19, are prompting box office employees at the Amherst Cinema to seek the creation of a union at the nonprofit theater that opened in 2006.

The 11 employees who are not part of management at the 28 Amity St. business on Friday announced the launch of the organizing effort for an independent union to be called Amherst Cinema Workers United. The employees have filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board, and are consulting with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and receiving training to effectively function as a bargaining unit.

On Monday, the trustees for the cinema voted to voluntarily recognize the union, issuing a statement that it looks forward to a fair and transparent collective bargaining relationship.

“Amherst Cinema respects the voices of our workers and their right to unionize,” the statement reads.

Kiah Raymond, a cinema employee since 2018, said in a statement that while Amherst Cinema is not a big corporation like Starbucks and Amazon, where employees are also forming unions, advocating for hourly employees is critical.

“The unique flexibility in the independent union structure means we are really able to build something that fits our specific circumstances,” Raymond said. “My hope is that this win inspires other small workplaces in the Valley to also build their own independent unions.”

The group delivered a letter to Salman Hameed, president of the cinema’s board of trustees, and Executive Director Yasmin Chin Eisenhauer, requesting the voluntary recognition.

That letter states that the union organizing action is about providing a means “for conversations of consequence” related to work conditions. “We hope to affirm the legacy of Amherst Cinema both as a venue for independent film and as a progressive institution — one that promotes equity in its programming and practices equity within its walls. We are confident that this is possible and are eager to work to make this institution stronger in the coming years.”

Trustees met both Sunday and Monday afternoon before making the response, which also included an observation about the measures that have used to promote well being, including requiring mask coverings, proof of COVID vaccination and limiting capacity, and having showings without concessions.

“The safety and well-being of our employees and patrons has been, is, and always will be one of our topmost priorities at Amherst Cinema,” the trustees said.

Hameed observes that decisions about COVID-related policies at Amherst Cinema were often made to keep it in line with both town rules and other comparable institutions, such as the Academy of Music in Northampton and Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston.

Previously, employees said that in November they sent a letter asking for more discussions around COVID safety policies, salary increases, improved scheduling, and changes to the concessions layout. But while there was a new round of COVID policy changes, there have been no pay raises since before the pandemic.

Andrea Schmid, a lead organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, said the hope is the community will stand in solidarity with the union and appreciate the voluntary recognition request.

“We are so honored to be able to support ACWU workers, and admire the incredible solidarity they have shown with each other throughout the pandemic,” Schmid said.

The workers center mission has included support for workers and workplaces in organizing and responding to unjust labor conditions.

Amherst Cinema Workers United is not affiliated with a parent union, a decision made by the employees who determined that going independent would offer the most autonomy over dues structure and internal policy. AJ Chobani, another cinema employee, expressed in a statement the excitement in joining the growing national labor movement.

“I am heartened to join the ever-growing numbers of workers advocating for their safety, security and dignity, things we have been told, explicitly and otherwise, are superfluous by an economic system that values people over profit and treats our labors as expendable.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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