Wednesday 27 October 2010

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

Of Angels and Demons: Is it really possible that a small group of individuals can get together and manufacture a national controversy? If the tale being spun involves 'angelic' national icons and 'demonic' trade unionists? You betcha! (Drawing by M.C. Escher)

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? How did a tiny union’s attempt to improve the lot of its members end up convulsing the entire nation?

What NZ Actor’s Equity tried to do here would scarcely have rated a mention in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland or Australia. Actors, film technicians, specialists of every kind in those countries negotiate with the big film studios all the time.

Only recently, Irish film-makers successfully concluded an industry-wide collective agreement. Ireland, you’ll recall, was identified by Sir Peter Jackson’s people as one of the places to which location shooting for The Hobbit might be shifted.


Why would you shift location filming to a country that already has an industry-wide collective agreement because workers in your own country were attempting to negotiate something very similar for themselves?

It doesn’t make sense.

Unless the entire controversy has been manufactured: unless all that we have witnessed since 28th September, when Sir Peter Jackson launched a very public broadside against the actors’ union, is a cleverly spun fiction. A tale replete with noble hero (Sir Peter) and evil villains (the unions) designed to exculpate its authors from any and all blame for taking The Hobbit offshore.

Can people really do that? Is it really possible for a small group of individuals to sit down and plan a whole series of actions designed to secure a predetermined set of outcomes? How on earth could they be sure that something wouldn’t go wrong: that they wouldn’t be found out? Wouldn’t the certain and catastrophic costs of having such a conspiracy unmasked vastly outweigh the potential benefits from its successful execution?

In most cases that would be the case, but The Hobbit is not "most cases" – far from it.

For a start, the principal player in this drama is an internationally acclaimed movie maestro, a national hero and a knight of the realm.

As citizens of a tiny nation located at the bottom of the world, New Zealanders are fiercely protective of such folk, and the news media, more than ever anxious to reflect the likes and dislikes of its readers, listeners and viewers, is not about to contradict them by criticising an "iconic" figure like Sir Peter.

For another thing, the designated villains of this drama – NZ Actors Equity and the Council of Trade Unions – are tailor-made for the role of "patsy".

Less than a month from now, on November 12th, trade unionists will commemorate the 98th anniversary of the murder of striker Fred Evans by a gang of scabs and thugs in the little mining town of Waihi. Ever since that bloody day in 1912 the New Zealand trade union movement has been subjected to an unending campaign of vilification and persecution by a combination of extremely powerful economic and political interests.

Farmers, business leaders, conservative politicians, right-wing editors and journalists, and (almost reflexively) a considerable portion of the New Zealand middle-class have never had a good word to say about trade unions. In any stand-off between capital and labour (and especially if capital is represented by a national hero) those in the strongest position to influence public opinion can be relied upon absolutely to blame the unions.

This extraordinary anti-union bias was on display as recently as last Sunday when viewers of the Q+A current affairs programme on TV One saw the show’s host, Paul Holmes, hector, browbeat, talk-over, interrupt and generally bully CTU president, Helen Kelly, as she stoically attempted to explain the union’s position on The Hobbit.

Small wonder, then, that 87 percent of respondents to a poll on the Stuff website blamed the unions for The Hobbit’s woes.

From this practically unassailable position, Sir Peter and the American studios putting up the money for The Hobbit, are well-placed to dictate the terms and conditions upon which the production remains in New Zealand.

If the Prime Minister and his Cabinet refuse to increase the subsidies on offer to match those available overseas, Sir Peter and Warner Bros. can depart these shores with their reputations unsullied – confident that it’s the "bloody unions" who will cop all the flak.

If the Government accedes to their demands, not only will Sir Peter be able to bask in the warm approbation of a grateful nation, but so, too, will John Key. New Zealand’s reputation as an effectively "non-union" filming location will be restored – along with generous state subsidies.

Also happy will be that permanent combination of anti-union interests. Thanks to The Hobbit controversy, the CTU’s "Fairness at Work" campaign lies dead in the water.

I especially enjoyed the irony of Sir Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshops-organised "Save The Hobbit" rallies on – of all days – Labour Day.

From beginning to end, it’s been a marvellous tale, masterfully told.

Perhaps, one day, Sir Peter will turn it all into an award-winning film.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 October 2010. 


Lew said...

Probably the only aspect of this issue upon which you and I agree, Chris, is the repugnance of an anti-union protest on Labour Day. Too far.


Robert Winter said...

The axis between Jackson and Taylor and Warner has played NZ as one plays a minnow, with a compliant and craven government falling in behind happily. The goal - an improved deal for the film, and a flexible and dependent (and cheap) workforce for Jackson and Taylor (the "Mexicans with mobiles" quip may have an Australian origin, but is telling all the same in the NZ context. Personally, I believe that this has been driven from NZ by employers here, with the union issue merely a scrap of gauze covering a gaping maw. But there is also a push-back - some of today's commentaries begin to reflect the issue of sovereignty, and the demand for more subsidy makes rhetoric about union threats increasingly empty. People are beginning to see how we are being duped. There is a downside in this for Key (especially as, for a much vaunted trader, his negotiation skills leave much to be desired - who goes into a "negotiation" having ceded the ground on extra money?).

And Helen Kelly and the CTU have been staunch in the face of a concerted and vicarious attack.

Chris Trotter said...

To Lew:

On the contrary, Lew, we both agree that the solution to the problems confronting workers in the NZ Film Industry is more unionism - not less.

Where we do differ, however, is on the probity of blackguarding a group of workers when they're in the middle of a major confrontation with their employers, the news media, and (sadly) a fair proportion of the so-called "liberal" blogosphere.

Without solidarity, genuine unionism becomes impossible.

Robert Winter said...

Well said, Chris. The fair-weather friends of labour who have buckled at the knee to Jackson, Taylor, Warner and Key are one of the most revealing aspects of this fracas. Jackson and Weta can be creative and innovative and all sorts of things, but they can also be employers who will go to great lengths to control and "flexibilise" their workforce and shut down worker voice. That has been a major agenda item in this affair. We may like to see NZ on film, and we certainly need the jobs, but is it the case that we want both on any terms that the employers choose to offer? At what point do decent work standards and practices, and sovereignty, for that matter, become important?

Fatal Paradox said...

"Where we do differ, however, is on the probity of blackguarding a group of workers when they're in the middle of a major confrontation with their employers, the news media, and (sadly) a fair proportion of the so-called "liberal" blogosphere."

This sums it up nicely. Whatever one may think of the tactics of the union leadership, Elementary Leftism 101 dictates that in an industrial dispute the primary duty is to show solidarity - not stand outside throwing rocks in through the windows, thus objectively aligning oneself with the bosses' representatives!

Lew said...

Elementary Leftism 101 might dictate that you side with whatever bunch of fools decide to call themselves a union, but Elementary Commitment to Democracy 101 requires that you assess the quality of their mandate before taking sides. If AE wanted legitimacy, the route to it was to attract the consent and support of the constituency of film workers before holding their careers to ransom.

This case is one set of workers against another. Chris and a handful of others are picking the minority of relatively powerful and influential activist workers over a considerable majority of more vulnerable workers not possessed of elite star status which permits them to grandstand effectively. That's highly dubious.


Chris Trotter said...

Well, Lew, the most charitable response I can make to that comment is that it reveals a lack of understanding of even the most basic rudiments of trade unionism.

If I were you, I'd stick to communications theory - about which you clearly know a great deal.

The cloth cap just doesn't suit you.

Lew said...

Yeah, silly me. I thought a union was an organisation composed of and directed by workers, deriving its legitimacy from the fact that all its decisions were in service of workers' needs, verified by regular consultation and democratic processes.

As you explain it, a union is just a bunch of people who reflexively hate the bosses. Funnily enough, that's just what the anti-union movement has been saying all along. No wonder at their present levels of support.


Anonymous said...

"The cloth cap just doesn't suit you."

The cloth cap is dead and gone. If the unions of yesteryear cannot adopt and find themselves new members like those computer and film technicians that you chose to denigrate then maybe it's time for them to go.

At we have a historian such as yourself Chris to pen their demise with dignity.

Gordon said...

It is nice to see some sense on this issue amongst the garbage spread by most of the media. The employment law issue in particular is a debate about nothing other than power and union bashing. As Paul Roth has pointed out Bryson was decided on its particular facts and was a contractual screw up by the employer. While the courts have the power to find a contractor is an employee they rarely do so and even less likely where there is a clear agreement-perhaps someone should have hired a lawyer to draft some contracts.

Chris Trotter said...

Yes, Lew, I'm afraid it is a matter of "silly you".

Unions are organisations born of the peculiar problems and challenges associated with a particular form of labour.

They are not mass organisations born of a common ideology - like political parties.

It is simply not possible to ram different groups of workers together and say: "Right, you're all in this together and those with the most votes get to tell everybody else how they should be paid and what conditions they should work under.

Actually, let me amend that last statement. It is possible to run unions that way - but only in places like the Peoples Republic of China and North Korea.

In truly democratic countries, workers tend to organise themselves in units that accurately represent their on-the-job issues and aspirations.

It is, obviously, desirable to bring as many workers in an industry as possible into a single bargaining unit. But, this will only happen when the many and varied occupational groupings are satisfied that their fellow workers understand, and are willing to support, their discrete claims.

This cannot happen if one, or a combination of occupational groups on a site, or in an industry, refuse to show solidarity with workers locked in a dispute with their common employer.

In fact, nothing could be more calculated to ensure that the workers on a site (or in an industry) remain bitterly divided.

And when workers are divided the employers will always gain the upper hand (as they have in The Hobbit case).

If you don't get this, Lew, then you really aren't cut out to be a unionist (hence the quip about the cloth cap not suiting you).

Anonymous said...

What a surreal experience it has been watching this story play out from New York. Your perspective is refreshing. The moment the Warner suits jumped in the cab to LAX, this was a done deal. This evolved into an opportunistic bout of union-bashing, I suspect. You couldn't conspire this well. I wrote about it here:

Lew said...

Solidarity is all very well when the actions of one faction to not endanger the livelihoods of other workers (or when such endangerment is understood and agreed beforehand). But to turn your statement around, solidarity also cannot happen when a minority of workers takes a position repugnant to the majority of workers; the few standing to lose little but risking the livelihoods of the many. The remainder of the industry could have been expected to support AE if they'd been brought into the tent; if their needs and requirements had been taken into even the slightest bit of consideration, but they weren't. AE went alone, and found themselves alone. AE bought this fight with their own industry. They caused the rift. It needn't have been so and the rest of the industry aren't to blame for it.

It's not that I don't understand unionism; it's that I disagree with your analysis. This was why I omitted the matter of more unionisation being required, rather than less, as common ground between us: because your view is that the industry should unionise and fall into lockstep behind AE, no matter what destructive idiocy they undertake; whereas my view is that a strong union movement would have prevented such reckless fools from jeopardising the careers of film workers in the first place.


Chris Trotter said...

Well, Lew, you've nailed your colours to the mast well and truly - good on you.

For the sake of workers everywhere I hope you never give up your day job.

Matthew said...

The greatest story ever told...the conflict between labour and capital, of power versus justice, of the world against the soul...

maps said...

No, Lew, you don't understand unionism - at least not in the context of this discussion
(if it's any compensation, though, I think you have a far better grasp of how the left should relate to Maori nationalims than our friend Chris!).

Even if a union goes into battle for the wrong reasons, and uses the wrong tactics - I'm not necessarily saying this has happened in the present case, as I'm not well-informed enough to judge - once it is involved in a battle with the bosses, the state, and the right-wing media, then the wider union movement has to show solidarity with it. Criticisms of strategy and tactics become of secondary importance to the battle against the common enemies of the movement. This is particularly true when the struggle in question has obvious ramifications for the wider movement.

Madison said...

Nice response Chris, if Lew gave up his job no Union would let him lead and the vacancy would create another job for someone. AS I stated in a far earlier post, these types of strikes are usually about getting benefits for the extras and such, but as it has gone on and I've followed it I think the demise of NZAE woudl benefit NZ and allow for the rise of a real NZ Film Union.

From the start both sides have behaved like spoiled children so there are no winners, and I'm realy disgusted at National selling the movie. But . . Why would you want the representation of a Union that can't manage to keep itself legal? NZAE was de-listed and if they can't even sort out their own legality why would you want them to negotiate yours? Second, the letter Peter Jackson released the other day clearly shows Simon Whipp declaring a blacklist and calling for all other Unions to do so until Peter Jackson agrees to a meeting and the wording clearly shows that they had not asked for a meeting before. This goes against all their claims about the blacklist being a reaction, it was actually the opening blow to the fight.

And why does Unionism still push the notion that anyone opposed to any union action is either scum or anti-union or both? Just because you support Unions should not mean you have to support all their actions all the time. That idea is totally outdated and rather fascist and it's embarrasing when you have Unions who only a couple of years ago called for the immediate deportation of all foreign residents to allow jobs for kiwis.

Shame on NZAE, Shame on John Key for selling out for the Hobbit and shame on everyone who picked their side without ever bothering to read the actual issues. Problems like this are too damn big to be picked based on ultra-simplistic terms such as Union=good or Union=bad.

Tiger Mountain said...

Agree with your second para maps, this approach is not the same as “support the union right or wrong” as the whimps at Public Address have been saying. The PAS line by lining of MEAA/SAG documents has gone beyond fact finding to a tiresome low level anti unionism from non, anti, ‘once were’ and never were unionists.

Fairness at work is not dead yet Chris, people can’t live on feel good for too long, “Scabbit” and Wellywood are not going to end growing unemployment.

Victor said...

You know what? This isn't the greatest story ever told.

It's a pretty bog standard episode in the ongoing soap opera of a government bereft of all skills other than those required for media manipulation. Personally, I prefer Coronation Street, where the bad guys sometimes get their comeuppance.

Meanwhile, the supine surrender to Warner Brothers' (Jackson inspired?) hard-balling, contrasts rather poorly with the late, great Groucho Marx's dismissal of Warner's heavy-handed threats of legal action over the use of the title 'A Night in Casablanca' for one of his siblinghood's masterpieces.

Groucho wrote back a letter of impeccable and hilarious logic pointing out, amongst other things, that (despite the wartime melodrama of that name) Warners' didn't own Casablanca, that most people could tell the difference between Harpo and Ingrid Bergman and (crucially) that the Marx's had been brothers for longer than the Warners.

After a few more such epistolatory flurries, the correspondence petered out, costing Groucho only the price of paper and postage.

Now contrast the success of this genially tough minded (and admittedly well-heeled and well connected) private individual with the vain and weak posturing of what claims to be the sovereign government of an independent state, founder member of the United Nations, valued partner in this, that and the other bold, global undertaking... and you might be tempted to weep!

But don't weep! Groucho wouldn't have! He'd have just made sure he had the last laugh!

Sanctuary said...

"...industry should unionise and fall into lockstep behind AE, no matter what destructive idiocy they undertake; whereas my view is that a strong union movement would have prevented such reckless fools from jeopardising the careers of film workers in the first place..."

And if we all had cold-fusion powered cars they'd be no global warming. But we don't, do we?

Spouting a load a of hypothetical rubbish about a strange fantasy world where strong and well resourced unions are made up lots and lots of furrowed browed "concerned of Grey Lynn" types doesn't actually provide any real life answers to real life disputes Lew. From here, it just looks like a sort of typical soft-left rationalising of selfish and self-interested behaviour.

Even the good Lord himself has seen fit to comment on the error of your ways on this issue - in the words of Matthew 12:25: "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand."

The idea that if some in the union disagree then they have perfect right to splinter and say so flies in the very face of the whole idea of what solidarity means, although I am sure the idea of opting out if you personally disagree appeals to the spoilt, pseudo-leftist iPad liberals who have largely manned both sides of the barricades in this dispute. The key lesson for the left in this whole debacle is the age old one - don't rely on the petit-bourgeois, because they just one threat to their livelihood away from ditching solidarity in favour of an unedifying scramble to ensure they at least get up the ladder before it is removed.

Lew said...

Rest assured, I have no intentions to try to hijack the trade union movement, and nor do I delude myself that I have any influence over it.

Maps & TM, a genuine question: how does "even if a union goes into battle for the wrong reasons, and uses the wrong tactics ... then the wider union movement has to show solidarity with it" differ from "union right or wrong" in any real sense?

If there's no need to assess the quality of a union's actions, their motivations or the impacts of same on the wider body of workers before joining their crusade -- and if indeed undertaking such an assessment makes one a "scab" -- then it really is "right or wrong".

Consider a union which explicitly -- rather than implicitly, as in this case -- sought to throw another group of workers overboard in service of its own limited and specific ends. Or what about a union which advocated anti-democratic, violent, racist or other such repugnant tactics?

Of course, in a robust union movement this wouldn't happen -- but hypothetically, wouldn't an assessment as to the merits be appropriate in such a case? Is it *really* true that the wider union movement must automatically fall in behind such a campaign, or are there some cases when it would be wrong and when all good trade unionists should disclaim their support?

If so, such assessments must be made; they have been made in this case, and we are simply disagreeing as to the extent of AE's intransigence.


Lew said...

Sanctuary, it's hilarious that the folks you're decrying as the Grey Lynn latte-drinking iPad spoilt liberals in this case are the drivers, labourers, electricians, carpenters, painters, caterers, etc; while your modern-day Stakhanovite heroes are the pretty and handsome, stylish, erudite, articulate, egotistic and frequently well-off (if not actually wealthy; after all, this is still NZ) few near the top of cast/crew ladder on any film production.


Anonymous said...

Your flanks were exposed [no support to pivot upon] Proxy-led by a foreigner with nothing to lose and who has a litany of destructive mutual-maulings behind him][Simon Whipp and the Aussie film industry], After faulty intelligence calculating the enemy couldn't afford an encounter as they were committed to their line of march [Warners and Jacko] the offensive stepped off with a bunch of girls in the vanguard attempting a salient against the high ground moving beyond support with no reserves to commit, ineffective artillery then fired out of use-date short-fuzed emails into the backs of the advance [the overwrought postings of the CTU, the cloth cap left longing for the days of the barricades and relevancy]. The enemy line enveloped the salient, called in HE after some negotiations of mutual benefit [Key and his team] and pounded the advance back beyond it's start line [proposed new legislation] The leader then fled to exile across the moat leaving the troops calling for terms.

The terms offered were unconditional surrender.

All in all, a rout. A classic blunder of English military proportions. Some union Tennyson may glorify it otherwise.


Thomas Beagle said...

Maps: "Even if a union goes into battle for the wrong reasons, and uses the wrong tactics - ... - once it is involved in a battle with the bosses, the state, and the right-wing media, then the wider union movement has to show solidarity with it."

So, how well is that tactic working out for the union movement in New Zealand?

Anonymous said...

Yes indeedy folks, more uninionism...that'll work a treat. Nothing like the spur of collective barganing to up productivity.......

As for the Helen Kelly.....not having the grace to admit you **$%ed up and withdraw with dignity rather than going down swinging at those greedy capitalist bast%^&* who wanted to spent their money here. F&*%K them, we'de all rather pull welfare than take your dirty corporte coin stained with the sweat from the brows of the brothas and sistas.

Yes indeedy, although donKey may claim to have poured a few pasos from the cycle trail budget to calm troubled workers it's a clear victory for the preletariat.

sagenz said...

Chris - Carry your logic through to its end. Nobody can disagree with any Union leaders course of action. All must show solidarity! Never mind the anti democracy implicit in that statement.

The next step is that the head of the Australian apple pickers union says NZ apples are bad. You must picket them. And you do so. Then the head of the Australian dairy workers union takes a dislike to our employment laws and pretty soon all agricultural workers have downed tools in sympathy, along with port workers, airlines, transportation and then any private industry. So in the name of "solidarity" New Zealand industry is soon at a stand still. Workers are unpaid and a union head decides it is all the fault of the "rich" company bosses. First someone suggests ransacking their houses. Then someone suggests a few should be shot as a message to the others.

A serious question for you. At what point should reasonable people use their own judgement and decide that it is their own "side" that is being unreasonable and refuse to participate?