Thursday 30 September 2010

The Mouths of Sauron

The Mouth of Sauron? Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, has very unwisely stepped from the sidelines of the dispute between Sir Peter Jackson and NZ Actors Equity to voice his support for the legal claims of Hollywood's Dark Lords.

"UNION" – it’s such a small word, and yet a person’s reaction to it can tell you so much about them. Indeed, to my mind there is no better test of character than the choices people make when confronted with an industrial dispute. The current stoush between the producers of The Hobbit and the union representing New Zealand’s actors has proved especially revealing in this regard.

Sir Peter Jackson’s response has been particularly disappointing. To most New Zealanders, Sir Peter is the epitome of Kiwi can-do-ism. He’s the man who did what no one believed could be done in the time-frame no one believed it could be done in. His hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy not only brought Tolkien’s magical prose to life on the cinema screen, it also presented New Zealand’s wild and unspoiled beauty to an astonished world.

So audacious was Sir Peter’s LOTR project that Kiwi actors, extras and technicians fell over themselves to help him. From the point of view of this country’s creative community (if not the trilogy’s hard-nosed Hollywood backers) LOTR was a demonstration of what New Zealanders could do. Sir Peter became the maestro of one vast, collective labour of love.

It made his name, and it made him a very considerable fortune – which none of us begrudged him. His success was our success.

And that’s what makes his response to NZ Actors Equity’s request for dialogue so very, very disappointing. Instead of siding with the people who helped to make him the movie mogul he is today, he’s sided with the Hollywood bosses.

Just imagine how much more New Zealanders would have loved and admired him if he had said to the industry big-wigs: "Look, guys, we were willing to under-sell ourselves once – just to show you what we could do. But now that we Kiwis have proved we’re the equal of film-makers anywhere, it’s time to pay us accordingly."

Sadly, what he actually did when push came to shove was become a union-buster.

The response has been fascinating.

The Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, has weighed in on Hollywood’s behalf by asserting that any negotiations with "Independent Contractors" would constitute price-fixing under s30 of the Commerce Act.

This is extraordinary, but Mr Finlayson’s price-fixing argument is one with which the American trade unions would be all-too-familiar – going all the way back to the Sherman Act of 1890.

The Sherman Act was originally intended to combat the anti-competitive behaviour of monopolistic big-business "trusts" like Standard Oil, but was seized upon by anti-union employers as a way of preventing unions (which they characterised as "cartels" of workers) from acting as a "restraint of trade" by collectively "fixing" the price of their labour.

Section 30 of the Commerce Act outlaws any contract which sets out to, "or is likely to have the effect of fixing, controlling, or maintaining, or providing for the fixing, controlling, or maintaining, of the price for goods or services". So, any attempt by a group of contractors (i.e. actors) to collectively establish a common price for their services would indeed be illegal.

Needless to say, Sir Peter and his Holywood mates have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that everybody who wishes to participate in their productions does so as an "Independent Contractor" – not as an employee.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent Sir Peter from hiring actors, extras and technicians as "fixed-term employees". Nothing, that is, except the obligation which he would then have to recognise their union, bargain with it in good faith, and afford its members all the rights enjoyed by other New Zealand workers.

The Attorney-General knows this, of course, but has entered the fray on the Employers’ side anyway. Unwisely, I would say, in light of the fact that since the mid-1980s Cabinet Ministers have sensibly elected to remain "on the sidelines" of industrial disputes to which the Crown is not a party.

But Sir Peter and Mr Finlayson are not the only people whose behaviour has given us cause for consternation over the past few days.

What should we make of the well-known media personality and (of all people) the film producer (!) who rolled up to the NZ Actors Equity union-meeting in Grey Lynn expecting to be admitted? How would these gentlemen react, I wonder, if Equity’s Frances Walsh appeared outside their production meetings expecting to join their discussions?

It’s sad really. The neoliberal model of industrial relations has been in place for so long that a whole generation has grown up without the faintest knowledge of what it means to stand together in unity, or to express solidarity with a group of workers under attack.

Since we’ve been discussing Tolkein’s works, let me close with a passage from Lord of the Rings. It concerns the messenger of the Dark Lord, Sauron.

Tolkien describes him thus:

The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’

It is to be hoped that all the mouthpieces of Neoliberalism: all the men and women who long ago forgot what it means to stand in solidarity with their fellow New Zealanders; all the "industry people" who have spent the last few days doing everything they could to undermine the unity of NZ Actors Equity; suffer the same fate as Sauron’s evil messenger.


Tiger Mountain said...

Excellent stuff, this is indeed all about what we have become as a society after 30 years of the neo–libs. Check out the youngsters on facebook ‘patriotically’ supporting Sir Jackson, (amidst good pepperings from Equity members and supporters). Interestingly the EPMU, a source tells me (not another blog), has an ongoing legal and industrial argument with NZ Steel who are running the exact “cartel” argument against the union and members that you describe above. Now we know what these swine talk about in their boardrooms!

Tauhei Notts said...

I like reading newspapers, but no newspaper in my area has such accurate viewpoints as those espoused here.
Please keep up the great work. It is appreciated, even by Act party activists like me.

Craig Ranapia said...

What should we make of the well-known media personality and (of all people) the film producer (!) who rolled up to the NZ Actors Equity union-meeting in Grey Lynn expecting to be admitted?

Well, since it wasn't clearly advertised as a "union meeting" (e.g., I'm more inclined to ask what we should make of a blogger who isn't going to let facts get in the way of snide bitchiness.

It has been a long time since I had a Jagpro card tucked away in my wallet, but we didn't issue quasi-public invitations to our union meeting then get precious when non-members took it at face value.

And heavens forfend that Russell -- who has been writing about all aspects of New Zealand media for over twenty years -- would have any interest in the meeting. He should stick to recycling press releases like most of the alleged journalists out there.

Chris Trotter said...

Oh, for God's sake, Craig! How stupid do you have to be to think journalists are going to be admitted to a union meeting?

Who's going to speak freely with the host of Media7 listening to every word that's spoken?

There was no harm at all in Russell turning up to cover the story and waiting outside - which is the usual place for journos on such occasions.

But expecting to run with the fox - and then hunt with the hounds?

Not going to happen.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Sorry Mr Trotter. Pant around ankles here, I think.

The invitation I say invited all to attend

"Union or not"

Doesn't sound much like a closed union meeting to me.

Cnr Joe said...

As the LotR fanclub president said - about a month ago - these hobbit movies are a license to print money, no matter where they are to be shot, assembled, composed, made.
To have Sir Peter want a labour of love again - on his own terms - is rather gross. To me he has become a classic case of 'becoming that - which he enjoined - seeking to change'.

Chris Trotter said...

Nice try, Adolf.

But I've just checked again, and as I thought the notice is clearly directed at "Performers and Actors - Union or Not"

In other words: "If you're a performer or actor, and regardless of whether you're a member of the union or have yet to join, this meeting is for you."

If it had been a public meeting it would have said ... well ... "Public Meeting" - and quite possibly have added "All Welcome".

You right-wingers aren't very bright are you?

Mark Wilson said...

Chris you are right when you say that the word union strikes a chord in most people.
I think that their left or right perspective is less about their character and more about their experiences. (As an employer I am used to people using ad hominen arguments against us.)

Anyone who has employed staff on their own behalf and who has had to shoulder all the risk, stress and hassles of running a business tends to side on the side of the employer, for obvious reasons.

Jackson has skills that none of the actors have, otherwise they would be in his or similar shoes. His success has more to do with his deal making skills than his undoubted Director / Producer skills.
What the actors and yourself are forgetting is that investing in films is incredibly risky so why do actors seem to think that they have a right to increase costs to the point where a project is more likely to to fail?

Jackson has an ability to get finance on a scale that no other Kiwi can, but it is still an incredibly hard thing to do.If the economics of filming in NZ don't stack up against filming in another country, no one, including Jackson can get funding.

If Jackson won't pay them enough then fine, don't take the part and go and raise the money for their own film. I am sure that the massively successful track record of NZ movies of murdering taxpayers money will stand them in good stead. But why should they stand in the way of other actors who will take part, as per some members of the Wellington union.

As to your harking back to the "good old days" of union solidality that was a time of massive abuse by many unions of their power, a power that they deservedly lost because the general community just got sick of their abuse.

Anyone who cannot celebrate the demise of unions like the boilermakers, who destroyed building in steel for a generation, or the beyond lazy Cook Strait stewards who with their regular holiday strikes showed their contempt for ordinary Kiwis, or the thieving wharfies, has no regard for ordinary kiwis who suffered at their hands for decades.

Take it overseas Peter when unions understand the principle of risk and reward.

Sanctuary said...

Looking at all the internecine squabbling amongst our aggrieved artisan class this appears to have triggered, I am not the least surprised

"...that a whole generation has grown up without the faintest knowledge of what it means to stand together in unity, or to express solidarity with a group of workers under attack..."

If they can't stand each other, how can they stand with others?

Tiger Mountain said...

Re Adolf’s contribution: righties tend to call the plods rather quickly if members of the public (known to the media as demonstrators or rif raff) try and attend uninvited a corporate board, shareholder meeting, or ACT conference say.

Anonymous said...

John Drinnan seems to have hit the nail on the head in today's Herald:

"We still have the skills to make good movies but we have lost the reputation - prized by the Hollywood studios - of having a weak actors' union."

But maybe I'm reading irony into a statement where none was intended, as Drinnan goes on:

"And that is the true value of Jackson's warning that Hollywood studios will go to Eastern Europe if costs go up.

From an industry that depicts New Zealand as uniquely talented and creative, it's a reminder that our film future is more prosaic. It's about staying cheap."

Or, roughly translating "staying cheap", it's about Hollywood and Jackson making 10 gazillion dollars rather than 9.9 gazillion dollars.

Maps said...

I certainly do begrudge Jackson the success of the LOTR films. Thanks to him not only half the world but half the population of New Zealand thinks of the landscape and history of this country in terms of the masturbatory fantasies of a senile reactionary English don obsessed with the dangers posed to his privileged existence by the rough hulking orcs of the northern working class. We've become Hobbiton, Tolkien's Surrey of the mind, a pleasant green land of contented peasant folk, or else some piece of melodramatic wilderness devoid of the imprint of humans.*

Let's hope that Jackson clears off to Hollywood for good, and that New Zealanders get back to the business of making movies that reflect their real history and cultures.
*Extended version of above rant:

Anonymous said...

Well said Maps.

And who would have thought that the sharpest class struggle of the year so far would be Auckland arty farts versus the Man?

Why is Tom Scott not on side in this one?

He writes scripts, which need actors work to make them happen.
Then when the actors are in the gun he draws a cartoon of them ignorantly shooting themself in the head, while a poor little hobbit crys.

Truly, money can buy anything

ak said...

absolument Maps: his initial, pathetic efforts told us all we needed to know. A try-hard nerd of limited talent; but with the political credentials to score the job of delivering the Righteous interpretation of a piece of literary drivel. And now too grand to share the fruits. Frock off you little over-puffed freak: you've done enough damage.

Madison said...

I'm late to this but I find a few points serious to question. I'll start by saying that usually these strikes or boycotts are about getting the profits distributed to the crew as well as actors and so I'm not too fussed about the whole deal.

However . . .

Why was this brought up originally to the press by an Australian Union that had made the gross mistake of allowing themselves to lapse out of active status in NZ. According to both sides they were no longer registered in NZ so how did they become involved. Once this was fixed then PJ would have to negotiate, seems to be a serious lack of planning.

Also, why wasn't NZ Actor's Equity leading the charge on this? The meeting involved and the lead to the increase of solidarity with a legally active Union didn't happen until several press releases were fired off on both sides and it was revealed that MEAA had lapsed.

If they want to fight this then fine, this is taking real charge of supply and demand and that's what capitalism takes advantage of. It's also the situation when the Unions are able to make the largest gains in that system as well. Not being inside any of this why the seemingly major missteps by MEAA and NZAE?

Tiger Mountain, the steel industry fight is about MECAs, trying to force all employers to accept a standard Union contract without any right to independently negotiate. From a friend in the US film industry standard contracts exist as a base and extras are renegotiated per job, similar to what NZAE wants. As far as I know the MECAs don't allow this to happen and do attempt an industry wide price-fixing. Although in that industry I'd back the workers.

markus said...

Meanwhile, congenitally-daft old Rosemary McLeod weighs in to this debate with the standard (and totally meaningless) rant on the Cooks and Stewards and Boilermakers Unions of the 70s.
(Dominion Post, October 1).

The woman just gets dafter and dafter each week.

Victor said...

You know, I'm genuinely undecided on this issue.

But one thing is clear to me: the folks who want the actor laddies to knuckle under are getting far more media time than the actor laddies themselves.

Funny that!

Tiger Mountain said...

Public (pussy cat) Address is surfeit with comments from producers and various simpering minions. Sure AE could have handled this differently, but a fair default position is that you first find ways to support the most vulnerable.

It is beyond ironic that the current generation of home workers and contractors represented at PAS feels the need to stick it to a small union run on a shoestring. You CAN line by line any situation in life, the question here is why would you with NZ Actors Equity.

p.s. @Madison, my contact tells me MECAs are not a factor in this particular steel plant issue.

peterquixote said...

With that class struggle thing that Chris gets so pontificate about its worth remembering that Jackson films are boring.
Would you go and see a repeat of a Jackson film today even you were paid to go.
Of course not. Let Jackson go to Romania.
He needs red carpets.