An actors’ union attempt to negotiate better work conditions has sparked the most heated class struggle in recent memory.
The workers’ initial claims were modest.
As the latest Actors Equity newsletter puts it, the union:
… has been working to improve performers’ terms and conditions in the screen industry for some time now. We have tried a number of avenues, including: approaches to SPADA (Screen Producers’ and Development Association) to negotiate a standard industry agreement; seeking to negotiate directly on individual projects with production companies (e.g. Outrageous Fortune); and harnessing our relationships with international fellow unions to elevate conditions for all New Zealand performers (e.g. The Hobbit).
For a number of reasons some of these approaches have not delivered our goals. Our experience shows that the existing guidelines for the engagement of performers in the screen industry (“The Pink Book”) are rarely complied with in their entirety, and performers have been unable to insist on such compliance. Individual approaches to productions have also been problematic, and can only work when performers on the production have sufficient leverage. Our attempts to date have met with fierce resistance from production companies and made the legitimate desire of performers to negotiate together a high-risk strategy.
Because talk didn’t deliver any improvements for their members, the union used the only strategy remaining to it and took action.
A month ago, in collaboration with Australian entertainment unions, Equity issued a do-not-work order, refusing work on The Hobbit without a union-negotiated contract.
Backed up by a violent storm of anti union agitation from the government and the capitalist media, the film’s producers refused to negotiate, saying the actors would need to talk to the national producers’ body, SPADA. Actors Equity and SPADA met last week and withdrew the do-not-work order.
The response of the right was to put the boot in harder.
Editorial writers, cartoonists and media hacks dutifully voiced an hysterical chorus of anti union agitation. Typifying the tone was the column from broadcaster Paul Holmes :
“Man, I’m angry. Angry that a group of gullible actors have allowed themselves to be used by some bolshie, left-wing filth from Australia…..what the whole disastrous affair shows is the unbelievable ego and rank selfishness of actors. What in God’s name were they thinking?”
Holmes ended his tirade with the abject grovel:
“And if it all has simply been a brilliant game by Warner Bros to garner greater tax breaks, they have played it brilliantly.”
Beneath the rhetoric, the ruling class revealed its claws.
Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee suggested the Government might change New Zealand employment law to clarify issues relating to the difference between an employee and a contractor. In other words, change the law to remove union negotiating rights.
Otago University employment law specialist Professor Paul Roth noted that such a law change specific to the film industry could set a precedent for other workers. Any time an industry looked likely to be damaged by overseas competition, similar action might be required.
In this instance, movie producer Sir Peter Jackson and money were driving any law change, not principle or justice, Roth concluded.
Amidst threats and uproar, members of Actors Equity remained committed to their union, claiming a significant membership increase during the dispute.
Equity spokesperson Robyn Malcolm told the Sunday Star-Times that she did not mind being unpopular while fighting for a good cause.
“I really believe in this stuff. I believe in workers’ rights.”
Robyn Malcolm went on: “I don’t actually need a union anymore. I can go in and negotiate a pretty good contract for myself. The reason I am doing this is I have been in this industry for 20 years and I remember what it was like to be a baby coming out of drama school – you are unbelievably powerless.
“All you want to do is please every director, producer and company you work for…the idea of making any sort of demand in a contract is completely terrifying.”
Without across-the-board industry standards, “actors are completely unprotected”.
“I could choose not to care. I could just very quietly not rock the boat. I am a working solo mother of two boys and I don’t have a job. Outrageous Fortune has finished. I am looking for work. Would I really, in the words of Cheryl West, want to root my own industry?
Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who is president of Equity, said she had thought about the possible repercussions for her career.
“I think it’s fair, what we asked for, so I’m hoping that people are rational enough to see that. I guess we’ll see what the future holds.
“I’m not saying it doesn’t require fortitude - everybody around me is aware of that - or that is hasn’t been hard on me and the family, but you have to come back to the question: is it fair to ask for a meeting? And I think it’s fair.”
As this is being written, Warner Bros Company executives are meeting producer Sir Peter Jackson and Prime Minister John Key to discuss the future of the $670 million project.
It’s no mystery why Warner Brothers is playing at threatening to pull out of New Zealand. They want to maximise their tax rebate, which in NZ is currently 15%. In France it is 20% and in Ireland 28%. Jackson wrote in a review of the NZ Film Commission two months ago that production subsidies are crucial to films being made here.
Gordon Campbell in an article on 22 October pointed out that Warner Brothers stood to gain by tens of millions of dollars by pressuring the government to give bigger subsidies: “Theoretically, how might the difference play out? On a $US500 million production that The Hobbit is reputed to be, it means that Warners/MGM could conceivably get a rebate of “up to” $US140 million in Ireland, as opposed to a maximum here of $US75 million. And we are supposed to believe that local unions merely asking for a collective wage agreement have somehow over-ridden a potential $US65 million difference in the bids? Yeah right.”
The Hobbit dispute underlines some other grim political realities.
When it comes to industrial disputes there’s no point in workers expecting “fairness” from employers or governments. When the union withdrew its threat and CTU President Helen Kelly began a series of apologies to the bosses, there was no let up from the other side. It was irresponsible of the union leaders to give an absolute assurance that there would be no disruption to the filming of The Hobbit in New Zealand. Who knows what workers’ issues might come up in the course of the production?
The only way workers can make any progress is by standing just as firm as the bosses. This can’t be done by single unions, we have to use our numbers and unite as a class. Workers’ unity is not just a nice phrase, but a condition requiring serious political preparation.
With hindsight, it can be seen that in the Hobbit dispute, more should have been done by the unions to get the technical workers onside, before attitudes were struck.
There is an attitude problem in the New Zealand union movement. Recent years of CTU leaders’ vain strategy of “Partnership” with the government and employers have left us weak and demoralised.
Another political reminder from the Hobbit battle is the uselessness of the Labour Party to workers in struggle. After their much vaunted ‘turn to the left’ conference last week there hasn’t been a peep out of Phil Goff in support of Equity’s basic union claims. Its when times get hard that you see who your friends really are.
Finally, what drove so many people to fall in line with the Hobbit bosses’ ‘work for us at whatever conditions we offer you’ demand?
Peter Conway, CTU Secretary, says: “The commemoration of Labour Day this year comes at a difficult time for New Zealand workers. There are 256,000 jobless and over 102,000 workers needing additional work, while many others are toiling for long hours on low rates of pay just to make ends meet”.
The increasingly harsh conditions of capitalism can make people desperate. Especially when unionism doesn’t seem to offer an alternative.
There is a way forward.
We should learn from the enemy. In the Hobbit struggle, the capitalists’ heavy propaganda campaign showed their fear that strong union action can be effective. The thing is for us to catch up and get the same level of class understanding.