Friday, 29 October 2010

Don't let the weird nationalism break you up: Thoughts on the Hobbit

She is 16 years old and she's an actress. Her friends may perform in school plays, but she is an actress - she has a job. She's in a TV show.

Today she is in wardrobe. One of the producers comes in - someone always checks the costumes. He touches her breast.

She tells her parents and her agent. They ring up the producers; they're angry. Her contract is terminated that day - breach of confidentiality - she talked about being sexually harrassed. By the next day the scripts have all been rewritten


I didn't make that up. It happened on a New Zealand film set this century.

The government is at the moment passing a law which will exclude those working in the film industry from being employees - the default position will be that they are contractors. At the moment as independent contractors actors (and others in hte film industry) can be fired at any time for any reason - they have no right of due process.

What this means is that there is nothing to stop producers firing teenage girls, because they sexually harassed them. And when there's nothing to stop people abusing power, sometimes they abuse power.

Often it's not about an individual abusing power, it's about saving money. If you can fire people for any reason they're much less likely to complain about health and safety.


At the moment (as you've probably already been told several times over the last few weeks) the conditions for actors are set out in the pink book - a non-binding agreement between Actors Equity and SPADA.

The non-binding bit is the problem - you can see how that'd be hard to enforce in an environment where someone can be fired for complaining about sexual assault.

This isn't actually something that has just happened over the Hobbit. Actors Equity have been working for years to negotiate binding wages and conditions for their members. They've tried lots of tactics some even made headlines - such as the negotiations with Outrageous Fortune. From what I've heard, the producers have thrown everything they had at keeping the union away from any form of negotiations.


Imagine if you could be fired for any reason every day you go to work. Then imagine you're asked to change your terms and conditions. Imagine you're asked to work in dangerous conditions. Imagine a boss touches your breast. Imagine worse.

At various times and places in various industries, these sorts of conditions have been really standard. The film industry is not the only industry in New Zealand where they still are, but it is a significant one.

I want people to understand how much power companies have when there is no collective bargaining, and no employment law. That's not because I think we should only stand by the actors because their conditions are appalling,but because I want people to know what they're endorsing, if they oppose the actors struggle to get a binding negotiatiation for their wages and conditions. I want people to understand how high the stakes are, and how much power the companies have now.


But this is not a story about the powerless screwing the people while the people do nothing. What is so important about the Hobbit is that the actors do have power. Outside New Zealand (including almost everywhere the Hobbit might have filmed in) the movie industry is well organised. The reason that Peter Jackson, WB and the government acted like the sky was falling in (to steal from Ian Mune) wasn't because the actors were powerless - but because the actors had organised and used their power. The threat of a global acting boycott was a real threat that they had the power to do real harm to the movie.

That is where some people who would agree with everything that I wrote in the first half of the post, lose patience and decide maybe they don't support the actors union. A lot of people have critised Actors Equity and MEAA for the way they used their power. Reading the Maps has a great post about the problems with fence sitting. I agree with him absolutely that is entirely compatible to stand in solidarity with the actors and criticise their tactics (although I also agree that only those who are knowledgable of the history of actors and unionisation beyond what has appeared in the news - I only know enough to know I don't know enough to enter the discussion). But I want to make a few more points.

My political position is that the only people to determine the actors struggle for union recognition and binding wages and conditions are the members of the actor's union.**

However, I understand that not everyone shares this position. Not everyone is a unioinist - and there is a part of the left where it is acceptable to balance and weigh things up and support the teachers because they're restrained, but think the radiographers might have gone too far, because they might hurt someone (hell there are, shamefully enough, parts of the union movement where this is acceptable). I want to unpack the implications of this balancing act in the case of the actors union.

Those who criticise AE and MEAA usually focus on the fact that the Hobbit could be moved out of the country, jeopordizing the film industry as a whole. Often they'll bolster their claims with talk about the right and wrong ways of negotiating, and how it's illegal for the company to meet with the union.**

There's something amazing about the passive voice - it can hide who is actually acting in the circumstance. The actors could not and would not have moved the Hobbit out of the country. The studio is the subject in a sentence about moving the Hobbit out of New Zealand. The studio could have agreed to meet with the actors, given them everything they demanded (which would have probably cost less than they spent flying the execs over from New York to meet John Key and see what they can get out of NZ government). They could have decided to move filming anywhere in the world. Whatever the studios decide, that's their responsibility.

To say otherwise is to support a "look what you made me do" position: don't provoke those with more power, and if you do you are responsible.

That's why it's impossible to sit on the fence in any kind of struggle where there's a power imbalance. Whether it's "I must finely examine the behaviour of those standing up to the powerful before I decide whether to support them. As if they make one mistake they are responsible for their provocative actions." Or "They appear to have lost, and therefore it should have been apparent that they would always lose and therefore I cannot support them." All this is predicated on accepting the power imbalance, and holding the actors responsible for the studio's power. The justifications people have offered for withholding their support from the actors have been grotesque.

Actors are workers, workers who at the moment gave access to neither collective bargaining, nor legal employment protections. They are organising to change that. If you stand with the bosses there's nothing I can do about that. But if you don't are your reasons for not standing with the workers really good enough?

Or you could just watch Florence Reece, who sums up the situation nicely:

* At this point someone always tries to execute a gotcha and say "well what if they were organising against women or Maori workers, . This isn't an unreasonable question - within in my lifetime unions have organised to exclude women from certain jobs. However, the point I make there is that the difference between a demand aimed at the boss and a demand made at other workers is a startlingly obvious one, and it is very easy to support the first and oppose the second.

** Which is just the kind of bullshit it takes two minutes to think through and expose. If WB can legally follow SAG minimums for American actors and MEAA minimums for Australian actors without that being price fixing. Then they can have collectively negotiated wages and conditions with their independent contractors in New Zealand. It's just that they don't want to with New Zealand actors, so they're hiding behind the law, and getting Chris Findlayson to help them out with that.


Sandra said...

Excellent post Maia, thanks. I also found the Reading the Maps post on fence sitting valuable.

When I listen to some of the anger against unions in sections of this country I am amazed and very dismayed: how many workplace deaths and other acts of extreme exploitation do people think is worth it for their vision of GDP?

Lyn W said...

Wonderful post Maia, thank you...I had been watching for someone to address this issue here.

Worker against worker, played so well by the powers that be! Divide and rule! I am so terribly disappointed in the actions of the New Zealand film makers and politicians who enabled a film studio to do this to us!

Anonymous said...

OMG what unadulterated drivel.

Helen said...

Great post. I'm glad someone is really thinking about this ridiculous situation.

Anonymous said...

You fail to understand the rights of contractors if you believe that they have contracted out of *all* of NZ law, as your emotive starting example claims.

Contractors have every right to walk into a police station to make a complaint of sexual assault, and nothing in any contract anywhere in this country could possibly deny that.

What's more, this person does not get to declare themselves an employee because they were felt up and have a good case as a personal grievance. The test for whether a contractor is an employee is based on other things, mostly whether they are treated like an employee in terms of independence of work, training, and duration of service, among other things.

Actors by and large have a very hard time meeting that test regardless of what any industry guidelines say. (In fact, the industry guidelines are explicitly not to be taken into account when determining whether someone is an employee, as the Employment and Supreme Courts have already ruled.)

You would do better not to start off with a weak emotive strawman for what is actually a serious change in the law.

- A. Contractor

Anonymous said...

excellent post.


DPF:TLDR said...

Anon, the law doesn't prevent workers from complaining to the police re: sexual harassment, it just doesn't keep their jobs secure in the event that they talk to anybody else about it.

This disgusting little episode is going to be used, by me, as a counter to those who claim that robust nationalism is the best way to defeat capitalism. In fact nationalism is something capitalism is very aware of and more than capable of harnessing towards its own ends, as we've seen here.

Perhaps both the most amusing and most sad part was when Richard Taylor, in a rally in Wellington, told a cheering crowd that "We shouldn't become a state of Australia". Convince people their national identity is under threat, and you can get them to sacrifice almost anything.

Anonymous said...

The so called "Nationalism" was a spontanous peoples revolt against a stupid,greedy bunch of shortsighted fools who,in the most ninnybrained piece of "negotiation" ever witnessed,imperiled thoudsands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of potential income for NZ.

That ordinary people realised this and reacted as they did by saying "not in my name!"shows REAL workers power and the best of New Zealands fantastic people.

And true free market Capitalism actually works to disempower Nationalism (in its worse sense)by making trade with different people in different countrys very desirible and discrimination very not so.This was recognised by Adam Smith and others centuries ago.

DPF:TLDR said...

Anon, if the whole thing was an anti-nationalist movement why did we hear so much about how the union involved was based in Australia?

kylejits said...

You've overstated the current law change.

It only applies to a small set of contractors - those who are stated to be contractors, but whom previously, like Bryson, could be redefined to be employees, because they were actually employees in most ways except for having a contract rather than an employment agreement.

The example at the top of your post is crappy, but it probably won't change. Not many people who are currently contractors fit into the 'Bryson' model. Most are actual contractors by choice, and many of the ones who ended up as contractors because they were told to be, wouldn't pass the Bryson hurdle under the old law.

Anonymous said...

If contract law is that bad then it's contract law that needs a revamp. It's not enough to say these people shouldn't be 'reclassified' as contractors _because_ of the potential for abuse as such, the real problem here by the sounds of it is the potential for abuse in contract law. It seems to me more important to address this that to address whether they are contractors or not.

Anonymous said...

"Anon, if the whole thing was an anti-nationalist movement why did we hear so much about how the union involved was based in Australia?"

It wasn't an anti Nationalist movement...who said it was? Nationalism is a form of socialism,racism,fascism,communism etc.

It this case it was a rather mild,spontanous form inspired by some quite understandable anger at people,and an Australian based agitator, who would have hurt us all if the Hobbit had left NZ.

Warners were gifted the opportunity to try for a bonus dael by the stupidity of the unions and so they should have...their shareholders would expect no less.The responsibility for them being able to wrangle a better deal is squarely on the shoulders of the union whos lies and bluster have been exposed for all to see by the release of letters recieved by Weta workshops showing the true time line of events...and it isn't how the unions claimed it was.

Thanks to John Key we have actually come out of this with a far better deal than was in place previously....Malcom and Kelly should get on their knees and kiss his feet....

Brett Dale said...

Its Warner's Bros, they wont stand for sexual harrasement of any kind, on one of their sets.

If you want to go after studios who dont treat their workers right, what about all the Bollywood films that are filmed here, they are left alone though.

The filming of the Hobbit in New Zealand is good news.

Anonymous said...

It is the perverse logic that Brett Dale's et al just used that this excellent posting is pointing out.

"If you want to go after studios who dont treat their workers right, what about all the Bollywood films that are filmed here, they are left alone though."

An old saying says Don't go complaining about the disorder of other peoples houses, before sorting your own out.

As a New Zealander we will not be working in Bollywood, let the Indian worry about their rights, and let us get on with worry about ours.

Brett Dale said...

My poisnt being, those bollywood movies that film here in Christchurch have a shocking record of treatment of their kiwi actors, but I have never heard of one protest against this from various groups? Why is that?

Warner Bros has an excellent track record world wide.