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Remember The Alamo (Drafthouse)
America fell in love with the quirky community cinema chain. Then private equity took control. Workers are leading an uprising to save it.
By Nicole Bardasz, More Perfect Union
The day before a union election at the Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse last month, workers listened to the company’s co-founder, Tim League, explain in an hour-long site-wide meeting why unionization wasn't right for the company.
Even though he supported unions in theory, League said, he was "disappointed" that employees at the location had sought union recognition. Doing so would "drive a wedge between us," League said in the meeting, an audio recording of which was obtained by More Perfect Union.
But after League finished, a worker took the floor and began to speak. "I have been jerked around for two years," the worker said. "I have been cut from my shifts last minute. I have been asked to be in more than one theater last minute. Asked to serve 40-something customers at once. Asked to do the job of two or more employees."
"I'm desperate for some kind of change," the worker said. "One might argue, I should just quit and find a better job, but I believe a better world is possible. One where instead of saying, ‘this job sucks, let someone else do it, I'm out,’ we stay and improve it."
Two days later, the results of the election were in: workers in Brooklyn voted overwhelmingly, 83 to 29, in favor of unionizing, becoming the first in the chain to win union recognition.
Workers in Manhattan followed suit yesterday, winning their union election with 65% of the vote. Alamo’s flagship location in Austin is organizing to form a union as well. In New York and elsewhere, Alamo Drafthouse workers are in a battle for the soul and the future of the company.
The beloved dine-in movie chain gained popularity as a quirky, community-oriented haven for cinema nerds. But after a nationwide expansion, a bankruptcy, and a private equity buyout, Alamo Drafthouse is at risk of abandoning the workers who helped make the company what it is today, to the detriment of a loyal base of customers and its own reputation.
What Happened To Alamo Drafthouse?
Like many movie theaters, Alamo Drafthouse was hit hard by the pandemic. The company furloughed 80 percent of its corporate staff and nearly all its theater staff in one day in March 2020; a year later, Alamo filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
To stay afloat, Alamo’s co-founder Tim League sold a majority of the company to private equity firms Altamont Capital Partners and Fortress Investment Group. Alamo emerged from bankruptcy in May 2021 and almost immediately announced plans for an expansion.
League has been adamant that the company hasn’t gone corporate, and has retained its mom-and-pop charm. But workers tell a different story—one of theaters in disrepair, low pay, and unpredictable scheduling.
To start, the Brooklyn venue is perpetually short-staffed. Servers and bartenders say they’re stretched thin; customers complain that their drinks are delayed and their food is cold. Bridge Squitire, a server at the Brooklyn theater, said the dishwashers are “criminally understaffed,” leading to a fruit fly infestation in the kitchen.
Jordan Baruch, who works in the box office, said that the understaffing means he has to radio for a manager’s permission to use the restroom.
Schedules are frequently changed at the last minute, meaning that workers may already be on their commutes when they find out they’ve been cut for the day. “You literally have no idea what your day is going to look like until you get there,” Squitire said. “There is no official work-sanctioned way to know when you’re going to leave.”
Absent guidance from management, workers share movie schedules amongst themselves and use “deductive reasoning” to figure out what theaters they may be in and when they should expect to leave. Sometimes they’re not told when they’ll be working over eight hours in a day before arriving at the theater.
Alamo management often reminds workers that the Brooklyn theater is the most profitable location. Workers wonder where that money goes.
“We make record profits and we still can’t make rent,” said Jesse Ganaishlal, a bartender who has worked at Alamo for six years. Starting pay at the venue is $10 for tipped workers like servers and $15 for non-tipped workers like concierges — the minimum wage in New York City.
Ganaishlal remembers a time when the company was more “worker-first” and used to host screenings for employees or other events to keep morale high. Now? As a thank you for record sales on the opening weekend of “Barbenheimer,” Alamo corporate sent workers in Brooklyn a congratulatory email and gifted them each one half of a free Panera Bread sandwich.
What workers are staffing is in a state of disrepair. The popcorn machine keeps breaking down; the fryers stop working; seats in the theater are cracked and worn out.
Dishwashers say they stand for hours in dirty water because of drainage issues. Some wear rain boots or use special oils to protect their feet from cracking or infections. Squitire says the kitchen floor is “always wet” from leaks and poor drainage, and there aren’t safety mats to prevent falls. Recently, a worker reportedly suffered a concussion after slipping by a leaking ice machine.
Workers have raised these complaints with management but say they’re ignored or offered empty promises. Baruch is hopeful that having the legal power of a union will put them on an even playing field with management, and force the corporation to treat them with more respect.
“[The union drive] got our attention. You’re not wrong about that,” a manager said in the pre-election meeting in Brooklyn.
Right now, the future of Alamo Drafthouse is uncertain. The company is set on expanding into a movie theater empire. But as it grows, will it be responsive to the workers who made it what it is? Or will it continue to fall prey to the classic private equity trap, cutting costs to drive up profits at the expense of a dignified workplace and customers’ experience?
If workers have their way, they’ll be able to save the company from itself.
“For years, Alamo workers have tried to solve problems through dialogue with management, to no avail,” Alamo United organizers said after their victory. “Now Alamo Drafthouse must meet us at the bargaining table as we join the fight against the billionaires and hedge funds who are cannibalizing the American economy and its working class.”
The company has yet to say publicly whether they will bargain in good faith with UAW Local 2179, which now represents Alamo Drafthouse workers in Brooklyn and Manhattan.