New Zealand Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly has published an extremely thorough account of the Hobbit dispute over at scoop.
It is extremely unusual to have such a detailed public documentation of an industrial dispute but then again it was an extremely unusual dispute – it’s not often an employer disregards a settled deal to continue a dispute and it’s not often the government steps in so completely on the side of an employer.
I’ve published most of the conclusion below but I highly recommend you read the full story. It paints an unpleasant picture of the relationship between capital and labour in twenty-first century New Zealand and of just which side this government sits with.
I have written this detailed (and rather long) record of events first because it is important to have a union record on this dispute but also because this dispute has become the subject of a number of academic publications. Having a clear set of facts on which these can be based is rather important.
But the response to the Hobbit dispute underlies a fundamental problem with the “jobs” narrative that is being driven up by the right wing in this country and used to hammer any worker who might want to have a voice in the economy or world of work. The narrative is largely unchallenged and is holding us back in many areas and is part of the growing corporate dominance over of our society and community.
Basically the story runs like this – and I am simplifying it. Work is a benefit, business is the benefactor and workers are merely the beneficiaries. Workers should be grateful for a job; a job is a privilege; employers should be lauded for the contribution they make to growing economic wealth. This narrative not only devalues the contribution of labour and fails to recognise the exchange of labour for wages that is taking place, but it also provides the justification for the removal of work rights, insufficient pay rates, government subsidies to business and the like. It paints anyone who joins or seeks to organise a union as disloyal, a wrecker or an ingrate, throwing charity back in the face of the giver.
It paints the union as an outsider, an interferer in a relationship based on charity. The employer is to be revered – deference is the name of the game. Employers have bought into this narrative and you hear it regularly in the commentary of their advocacy groups. It is also used here and internationally to justify unsatisfactory and unfair trade arrangement, environmental degradation etc. It is being resisted but is overpowering in many situations. It is similar to the so-called ‘trickle down’ approach – where, if everything is done to make business profitable, the benefits will flow down to the deserving poor. We saw that in the 1990s – but the benefits only trickled up.
The Hobbit dispute is simply an example Actors were portrayed as ungrateful, biting the hand that feeds them, contributing nothing compared to the great Warners that were donating 2000 jobs to the economy. The beneficiaries were ungrateful. No discussion on rights was possible. Absolute deference was to be shown to business and this employer regardless of any other possible approach (e.g. that they should be expected to negotiate with performers here, as they do all over the world). The union was demonised and a change to employment law, at the request of Warners, was New Zealand’s way of apologising for some of our citizens’ bad behaviour.