An Employment Tribunal, held in Croydon, South London, has found unanimously that Picturehouse Cinemas Ltd acted unlawfully when it dismissed two union representatives at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton.

"The case stands as a warning for employers who close their minds to what employees say in their own defence."

Victoria Phillips,
Head of Employment Rights at Thompsons Solicitors

In all, three BECTU representatives were dismissed from their jobs in June 2017, following an email that was sent to all BECTU members at the Ritzy, summarising discussions made at an earlier union meeting. The e-mail made reference to cyber-picketing - a potentially unlawful activity – and, on becoming aware of its inclusion in the e-mail, union officials advised members of the serious nature of such activity.

The representatives were accused by their employer of failing to alert management to the contents of the e-mail and of failing to be open or transparent, to the point of dishonesty, during the subsequent investigation. In total, six Ritzy representatives were investigated, leading to three dismissals. A fourth representative was dismissed later with a tribunal case pending.

Following their dismissal, the representatives turned to their trade union, BECTU, and employment law specialists, Thompsons Solicitors. Together, they took their case to an Employment Tribunal, set against the context of the long-running industrial dispute over Picturehouse’s failure to pay the Living Wage to their employees.

Though finding in favour of two representatives’ on the claim of unfair dismissal, the Tribunal found that the third applicant didn’t have sufficient length of service to bring an unfair dismissal claim. It also ruled against the three in their claim that their dismissals were automatically unfair through being victimised for trade union activities, while a claim of detriment due to suspension was also dismissed by the panel.

The judgement did, however, highlight that throughout its internal investigation, Picturehouse continually lacked “neutrality,” and that there was “an assumption of [the employees’] guilt.” It also pointed to “failures at all stages of the process… to properly engage with the nature of the claimants defence.”

Moreover, the judgement noted that all members of the panel agreed that the claimants’ union activities “played a part in the decision-making of the respondent”, but were not the principal reason for dismissal.

Gerry Morrissey, head of BECTU, said: “We’re obviously satisfied that the Tribunal has 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 Tribunal’s 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.”

Victoria 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.”

The further hearing to determine the compensation due to the two BECTU representatives will be heard in December this year.