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Now Playing at Nitehawk Cinema Prospect Park: Unionized Workers

An aging theater, groping by theatergoers, and the aftereffects of 'Barbenheimer' paved the way for a new union.

(Alex Chan / Nitehawk Union)

I didn't recognize what was playing on the projector in the back room of Freddy's Bar in Park Slope—some anonymous movie clip, thrown on for ambiance—but nobody was looking at the screen anyway. Instead, members of the newly-public Nitehawk Union were enjoying beers and chatting with each other, with the biggest cluster of people sitting around a table, hashing out a press release about their inaugural action: a 20-ish person march into the weekly management meeting at the dine-in theater's Prospect Park location, which they had just interrupted to ask for voluntary recognition of their union. After listening to their demands, management told the union that they weren't willing to reach a decision at that moment. 

"That being said, we have over 70 percent of employees' cards already, so we're excited about having a supermajority going into the [possible] election already and we're feeling really confident about it," Alana Liu Moskowitz, a server at Nitehawk's Prospect Park location. (Workers at the theater's Williamsburg location are not part of the drive, and would not be in the prospective union.) Union members told me they were set to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday. If they win, the union will include line cooks, prep cooks, servers, food runners, bartenders, and porters, and fall under the purview of United Auto Workers Local 2179, who they connected to with help from volunteer organizers from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a Democratic Socialists of America project with an active branch in New York City. 

When I asked about the catalyst for the drive, Nitehawk Union organizing committee members were quick to point to their dine-in theater peers over at the two unionized Alamo Drafthouse locations in the city—one in Downtown Brooklyn and one in lower Manhattan—also currently represented by UAW Local 2179. They also cited the same breaking point as NYC Alamo United members: "All roads lead back to Barbenheimer," Jovani Fuentes, a lead server, said. "We were doing 10-hour shifts, opening and closing, then coming back again and opening and closing, multiple days, and with little to no support within the management team when we were super stressed."

But the workers were quick to emphasize that Barbenheimer was far from the start of their problems. "The building is over 100 years old, and they've done minimal renovations because they boast about how much they've been able to preserve—but as a result, debris will literally fall down from the ceilings, you can feel pockets of cold air coming in from outside, and the floors are unsafe," Moskowitz said. 

"'Slippery!" Fuentes chimed in.

Moskowitz described narrow flights of stars that servers have to navigate in the dark of the cinema. "And there are three flights of stairs that you often have to take as a server that wind around the building—it's basically a maze," Moskowitz said. "All of these things are happening—on top of serving in the dark." 

"It is a pipe dream that we all fit through there with food and drink, without spilling," Catherine Coradini, another server, said. Another major issue with serving food mid-film: Workers say the cover of darkness empowers some customers to grope them while they work. "We have described it at times as 'Hooters with movies,'" Moskowitz said, eliciting laughs from around the table. "It's not a safe workplace in that way." And, critically, Nitehawk Union members said that raising these concerns to management has been a consistent challenge. "Voicing, 'Oh, I've been inappropriately touched by a customer,' management is just like, 'Well, get someone else to run your row, then,' instead of, 'Let me talk to that customer.' They just gloss it over," Fuentes said.

"Our manager didn't understand the doors were too heavy and swung from the wrong side until he tried to run a tray of drinks himself—and that's when he almost hurt himself, said, 'I can't believe you guys have been doing this!' and installed an automatic door," Moskowitz recalled. "It takes somebody almost getting hurt, who is an upper-level manager, to actually effect change." She also said workers have faced workplace backlash for using the manager-approved ways to raise concerns about working conditions, like through a virtual "suggestion" box or during staff-wide meetings with management. Nitehawk management did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the union drive, or the allegations about employees being groped.

These issues—plus the added hysteria of Barbenheimer, and what workers said was a recent move from management to cut worker perks, like comped movie tickets—pushed workers to call an impromptu meeting in Prospect Park after work last August, the genesis of the union drive. "A big part of it was us reaching a level of empathy with each other and realizing that even though our conflicts and our issues with management all looked different, we all had issues with management and the way we operate," Coradini said. 

For now, the union has presented management with a short list of demands—increased base pay for all employees, consistent building upkeep, consistent scheduling, and accountability for what they do when workers do raise concerns—all things they say will make Nitehawk a better place to work. Still, reaching the back-of-house kitchen staff has posed a particular challenge, according to Smith, the line cook. "I'm a son of a union delegate, I've been talking this politic for almost the two years I've been at Nitehawk, but there was a lot of defeatist sentiment in the back, because this is just how kitchens 'are,' and if you can't handle the culture, you quit and go to another job to start the process over again," Smith said. "It wasn't until these guys got the ball rolling that I was even able to start bringing the unrest and disgruntled attitudes to an actual focus." 

Smith said that some of his back of house colleagues have been nervous about joining in the union drive because of concerns over their immigration status, but that, for the most part, the union is making progress. "I'm just feeling like, OK, now the work is really beginning," he said. "Now that we can openly talk about this, it's time to radicalize the cooks and the porters."

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