Thursday 21 October 2010

Misdirection (How "The Hobbit" Buried "Fairness at Work")

Misdirection: The furore reignited by Sir Peter Jackson and his minions over the production of "The Hobbit" occurred on the same day as 22,000 workers protested the National Government's plans to curtail workers rights. This fortunate "coincidence" (along with a vicious anti-union outburst from the country's DHBs) drove the issues relating to "Fairness at Work" clean off the nation's front pages.

THEY CAME HOWLING through the streets of Wellington like an army of bloodthirsty orcs. And striding at the head of this rabble of hysterical computer geeks, dull-witted gaffers and troll-like grips was the wizard of Weta Workshops, Sir Richard Taylor, energetically playing the role of Saruman to Sir Peter Jackson’s Sauron.

Meanwhile, the Black Gates of Mordor (a.k.a The Wairarapa) opened – spewing forth those two spiteful Nazgul, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens. Raising high their Dark Lord’s banner, they made a beeline for the White City (a.k.a the studios of Radio New Zealand).

Barring the way, their bright red banners glowing in the morning sunlight, stood a tiny army of elves and men (a.k.a. NZ Actors Equity and the CTU). At its head, awaiting the onset of Mordor and Isengard with drawn swords, were Robyn Malcolm and Helen Kelly.

And over all, untouched by the media lights in its multi-million-dollar fortress, the Eye of Jackson cast its baleful glare. Safe behind his impenetrable walls, Sir Peter will only ride forth when the final battle has been won and the last contract signed – the wheels of his midnight SUV rolling heedlessly over the corpses of slain actors and eviscerated unions.

* * * * *

AND WHAT A COINCIDENCE (if coincidence it was) that Jackson’s vicious display of anti-union fury should occur within 24 hours of 22,000 workers turning out to demonstrate their opposition to the National Government’s Employment Relations Amendment Bill.

And, of course, Jackson wasn’t alone. The DHB’s also chose 20 October to launch a full-scale assault upon the unions representing medical radiographers and laboratory technicians.

How convenient, because, who knows, without the scurrilous, unsubstantiated and completely self-defeating claims scattered around by the DHBs; without Taylor’s mob and Jackson’s scaremongering letter; the New Zealand public might have been able to concentrate their minds on the issues being raised at the CTU’s "Fairness at Work" rallies.

Without these spectacular employer provocations inflaming their passions and diverting their attention, decent New Zealanders might even have felt a twinge of sympathy – even empathy – for the plight of the invisible hundreds-of-thousands of working-class people who, day-after-day, keep this society functioning.

And don’t tell me that there is no such thing as "the working-class" any more. Don’t pretend that we are all, in John Lennon’s words: "so clever and classless and free". Because, if you had been sitting where I was sitting yesterday afternoon you would know what a dangerous and self-serving lie that is.

Seated in the Telstra Clear Event Centre in Manukau yesterday, watching the thousands of union members as they slowly filled up the vast space in front of me, it was as though I had been transported to a wholly different New Zealand.

This wasn’t the bright, white world of the television ads: the world where everyone is beautiful and everything is new. Nor was it the world of Ken and Barbie news presenters, breathlessly relating the details of the latest celebrity scandal. The faces of the men and women in front of me were lined by care and etched with hardship. Many of them were wearing the livery of their masters – like the servants of 18th Century aristocrats. Others came straight from the factory floor in boots and overalls.

And, overwhelmingly, the working people in front of me were brown-skinned. Maori and Pasifika, Asian, Middle Eastern and African. Represented on that rapidly filling floor were scores of languages and dozens of cultures. It was another New Zealand altogether, and upon its collective back, every day, the New Zealand of the rich and the comfortable does its business.

Whether the rich and the comfortable allow themselves to be carried in wilful ignorance, or callous indifference, matters much less than the fact that the people upon whose backs they ride have become invisible to them.

The hopes and fears, struggles and triumphs of working people simply don’t matter to this rich and comfortable New Zealand. It never drives through their neighbourhoods, it doesn’t drink in their pubs, it knows nothing of the great rows of factories, warehouses and shops where they work. The people who drive the trucks, who unload the ships, who keep the water flowing through the taps and the electricity flowing down the wires are seen as mere appendages to the machines they operate. They are not people – they are services, servants, things.

And things are not supposed to talk back, complain, ask for more, demand a say: things are supposed to work when they’re switched on, and to shut-down when they’re switched off.

I wish the rich and the comfortable – the New Zealand that switches human-beings on and off – had been in that hall yesterday. I wish they could have heard the great shout that went up when Robert Reid, Secretary of the National Distribution Union, cried out:

We will defeat this bill, nothing is surer! If not today, we will defeat it tomorrow; if not tomorrow, we will defeat it on the streets, we will defeat it in the workplaces, we will defeat it next year when we throw this anti-union Government out! We defeated John Banks and got Len Brown in ... We can win, we will win, we will throw this bill and this Government into the dustbin of history!

That’s what rich and comfortable New Zealand has forgotten, you see: that these "things" they switch on and off have votes – and are learning how to use them.

The sword that was broken is being reforged.

The Dark Lord hasn’t won yet.


Carol said...

Spot on, Chris. And how convenient for Key, that he is able to step in and offer a resolution, while coincidentally running the same line as the Jackson team, while blaming the unions for the problems.

I agree with the diverse make-up of the crowd at the Telstra Clear Stadium. It was a similarly diverse crowd on the union-organised bus I travelled to the rally on from West Auckland - the majority being Pasifika women, along with some Asian and Pakeha women and men. The group also included a range of occupational levels: manual, white/collar, professional.

The rally was so well attended, we were in a very slow moving traffic queue to the stadium from the motorway, and only got parked and off the bus, in time to meet the crowds coming out of the stadium at the end of the rally. The rally pretty much stopped the traffic in the area, even though TVNZ particularly, tried to spin it for NACT as a poorly attended rally.

NACT know large numbers of the population are unhappy with the way they are undermining workers rights and shifting the burden of neoliberal woes onto the least well-off people. And they are drawing on all their powerful connections in the corporate and media worlds, to spin and manipulate the blame back onto workers and unions.

markus said...

Beautifully written piece, Chris. Not much more I can add, except to encourage people to go to Gordon Campbell's website for a sophisticated, in-depth alternative to the MSM's version of the Hobbit employment dispute (I'd start with his September 29 and October 6 articles, and then move on to his latest October 20 piece).

Anonymous said...

Another commenter on a previous posting that we have these big social confrontations every 30-40 years or so, the strikes of 1913 and 51, the '81 tour, etc. Well, looks like our next big one is due.

Chris, I dont think you and your peers really appreciate what is coming ahead in the next 18 months heading up to the next election. The events of the past week have only confirmed that we are, for lack of a better term, in for the biggest shit-fight in a generation. There is going to be truly no quarter given or asked for.

Question is, are the CTU and the Labour Party up for it.

Mark Wilson said...

Meanwhile, the Black Gates of Mordor (a.k.a The Wairarapa) opened – spewing forth those two spiteful Nazgul, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens.

They are not people – they are services, servants, things.

Any relationship between the two attitudes to fellow humans?

There is no possibility I suppose that any ill treatment of the workers has its seeds in the corruption of the unions in their hey day?

As to the Hobbit dispute, the left, including Campbell, have made, without any proof whatever, the accusation that this is all about bigger tax right offs. When Warner Brothers come and go next week without asking or getting anything that has not been previously been promised I suppose it will be to much to ask those who have defamed Jackson to apologise?

Malcolm and Kelly have proved they are extremely naive in their expectation that investors of half a billion dollars in such a high risk enterprise were going to happily increase that risk for her benefit.
Children going up against giants.
And it would behove Ms Malcolm to remember that the tax payer, through NZ on Air pays her wages and they are unimpressed with her behaviour.
The wealth consumers really are excllent at biting the hands that create the wealth.

Chris Trotter said...

There are those, Mark, for whom troubles and dangers are constant and unwelcome companions, and there are those who seek out danger and go looking for trouble.

The former deserve our compassion and assistance, the latter have only themselves to blame if the danger and the trouble they find end up overwhelming them.

You seem to believe it was Actors Equity who went looking for trouble. I, on the other hand, am growing ever more certain that it was Jackson and his gang.

The very least he and his mouthpieces should expect to attract is a little satire.

Madison said...

Chris, wonderful connections but I've got a few points to pick. One, why is everyone on the left blaming Peter Jackson and the right blaming Helen Kelly and the CTU? Neither is supposed to be negotiating the contracts if I understand this correctly, NZAE and Warner Bros. are the groups that are running the show and most press releases seem to come from other parties. Wouldn't that be the real misdirection?

Second, I work with many people similar to those in the rally. Faces etched by hardship. I believe it's called work and yes, work can be hard. Despite the claims of many people needing jobs we aren't able to get people to fill the ones we've got available and the few who do show up rarely seem to honor their contract. I've been in a battle recently with a co-worker screaming at one point that a 40 hour week was absurd and that the only way to get enough rest was to pull sickies every so often. Fairness at work pulls both ways, and while many people aren't well-paid there's a similar amount who won't honor their contracts as well.

Finally, I worry about the idea now bandied about that the Actor's Equity people needed police protection because they worried about the protest by the Weta people. Have these people not attended a rally before? Have they not seen what the other side of the line looks like? Having been spit upon and shoved by protestors as well as being escorted away from a protest by police to "protect the protestors" I find these people being scared of a protest a joke and ridiculous over-reaction typical to BOTH sides of this debacle. What did they think the other side of a protest line looked like? Of course there was harassment, in the instances above I was merely trying to bike on the bike path past a square on the way to work and I got that much.

Finally, wrong post but really liked the report of the Labour caucus, good idea on the full feel from the inside without the insider political BS.

Shona said...

Beautfully written Chris. It almost brought a tear to my eye!

Anonymous said...

Chris, the NZ actors were out of their depth, playing cards dealt by your erstwhile Aussie brothers. They thought because production had started that they held a winning hand. What they had was a busted flush and their bluff was called. Game over. To the detriment of everyone.

Look at the distress in Europe where countries are against the wall. Unemployment and dread uncertainty. You may have a keen eye, but even Blind Freddy can see what's looming here. Work is work, but this naive crew had a go at throwing it back into a troubled company's face. Life is not a drama scene that can be re-enacted if someone muffs their lines. Mostly it one take, then it's a wrap.

Shakepeare knew it:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures

These unfortunate people have swung and missed. I doubt it will affect your Aussie mate. Life will go on for him. He won't be wading out into the shallows and miseries to help unemployed Kiwi movie industry personel. Wake up. He and his union had nothing to lose -- they're Aussies.


Nick said...

I had a look at the comments on the Kiwiblog link, it would seem that orcs in a frenzy of blood lust are as common as grass in NZ. The spirit of the country reminds me of 81, there is a growing chasm on all issues and a re emergence of the slumbering NZ reactionary persona.."I want my film (rugby) and dont get in my way or else". Its going to get ugly.

Anonymous said...

I've not seen anyone quoting Peter Jackson's complaint after LOTR that getting tax breaks from the NZ government was like getting blood from a stone. It's funny how we forget.

Anonymous said...

One for the Tolkien fans: Peter Jackson is acting like a spoilt Thorin Oakenshield throwing a wobbly over the Arkenstone

Here's how Crosby/Textor would write the Hobbit script -

unaha-closp said...

"THEY CAME HOWLING through the streets of Wellington like an army of bloodthirsty orcs."

Orcs are things...

"And things are not supposed to talk back, complain, ask for more, demand a say: things are supposed to work when they’re switched on, and to shut-down when they’re switched off.

Samuel said...

Here's fun: compare and contrast the description in the post above with actual video footage.

Gregor W said...

'Comments which are defamatory, vituperative, snide or hurtful will be removed, and the commentators responsible permanently banned.'

"...rabble of hysterical computer geeks, dull-witted gaffers and troll-like grips.."

Way to eat your own sandwiches there, Chris.
Half-arsed attempt at satire aside, film industry folk are workers too.

Portraying Weta workers (all be it, ham-fistedly) as stooges in some pervasive neo-lib conspiracy against the 'working man', co-opted by their evil capitalist masters into being foot-soldiers in class war against poor, mistreated actors is grasping at straws.

Conflating the genuine issue of protecting basic rights threatened by the ERA amendments with the whingeing of a few contractors fronted no less by one Robin Malcolm (who let's not forget, was quite happy to take Jackson's money last time), does a gross disservice to those thousands who voiced their genuine anger in Auckland, not to mention the thousands of film workers whose livelihoods are at stake.

Shame on you. Your hyperbole does you no credit.

ff14gil said...

A good negotiation is highly recommended for both parties. Leaving NZ isn't a great idea to push with cause it would mean lose-lose game between NZ actors and the production the movie. Also boycott the movie was too irrational for the union to do so, they just adding fuel to fire.

Anonymous said...

"The hopes and fears, struggles and triumphs of working people simply don’t matter to this rich and comfortable New Zealand. It never drives through their neighbourhoods"

That sir is barefaced a lie. On my frequent trips abroad I find it necessary to instruct my driver to pass through Mangare so I can alight at Auckland International Airport.

Anonymous said...

Foreign acting unions' best self-interest is for there to never be a film made in New Zealand again, unionised or not. So their motivations will be questioned by default.

Even if the unions' cause was righteous, they should elicit little sympathy. Unions are meant to behave rationally and competently in the best interests of workers' pay and conditions. The unions' tactics have potentially led to the shuttering of a multi-billion dollar industry and with it the livelihoods of thousands of workers. Unemployment seldom garners better pay and conditions than employment.

The long failing of communism has been the belief that communist institutions like unions lead to perfect human beings and perfect decision-making, and to deny or redirect responsibility for failings when they do inevitably happen.

Anonymous said...

"The unions' tactics have potentially led to the shuttering of a multi-billion dollar industry and with it the livelihoods of thousands of workers. Unemployment seldom garners better pay and conditions than employment."

Quite frankly, if we are to have a high wage economy with job security, we are better off without the film industry.

Anonymous said...

"Quite frankly, if we are to have a high wage economy with job security, we are better off without the film industry"

Many people work in film and media notwithstanding the precarious job security because they enjoy it and have a sense of pride to what they are contributing to which may be lacking if they were to work as insurance assessors or policy analysts at the MED.

Jameson said...

The ugly face of unionism doing what it does best... screwing up an entire capitalist industry. You're nothing but Red Star Mafioso, Trotter.

Anonymous said...

At least 'the ugly face of unionism' returns decent wages and conditions and job security to a lot of vulnerable people.

Personally I dont give a toss if the film industry collapses. As I said before, more people are queuing up at the local meatworks than up at PJ's backlot.


Grant said...

Actually the fact that RNZ got stuck into this story gave a lot of the public a decent understanding of the issues at hand.

Grant said...

..and Lennon was being somewhat sarcastic Chris. You must know this.

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that have no worldwide competitive opposition, are invalid.

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