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Made in Wellington

Written By: - Date published: 8:35 am, November 3rd, 2010 - 31 comments
Categories: film, sexism, workers' rights - Tags: , ,

I went to see Made in Dagenham last night. The parallels between the dispute, that began when female workers at a Ford plant in the UK struck for better pay, and then equal pay with men, and the Hobbit fiasco were striking. But it’s the dissimilarities in the outcomes that I was left pondering. Let’s take a look at the two events:

In Dagenhem in 1968, 187 female machinists at the Ford factory (100% unionised) struck when they were reclassified as unskilled labour with correspondingly lower pay. When it became clear that they were being targetted by the bosses because of their gender, they extended their demands to equal pay with men on the semi-skilled grade.

In 2010, actors who were members of Actors Equity struck, refusing to sign on to the Hobbit movies until they got better pay and conditions, which they hoped to make a model for better results across the industry (it’s called pattern bargaining).

A small band of workers take on a multi-national organisation for better treatment, so far, so similar. But hre’s where the stories depart.

Without the women producing the fabric interiors for the cars, the Ford plant shut down. Other female machinists at other Ford plants also struck and Ford’s production in the UK ground to a halt. This affected the livelihoods of tens of thousands more workers who were suddenly redundant. Those workers, by and large, stood by the striking workers because the cause was just, the female machinists had always supported the men in other parts of the factory when they had gone on strike, and they knew that the only way working people achieve better results is through solidarity. If workers turned on any group of workers wanting better pay and conditions, then none of them would get anywhere.

Richard Taylor got a few hundred of his technicians at Weta to knock off early from work one day and protest in Wellington, loudly denouncing the actors’ actions because it threatened their own livelihoods. After 25 years of neoliberalism, workers are just as likely to oppose other workers wanting a better deal as support them – then they wonder why there’s no-one to back them when they want a better deal.

Ford threatened the UK Government with capital flight (taking its factories elsewhere) if the dispute wasn’t solved to their satisfaction.

Warner Bros threatened the NZ Government with capital flight (taking the Hobbit elsewhere) if the dispute wasn’t solved to their satisfaction.

The UK Government (a Labour Government) calculated that the threat of capital flight was hollow – there was no way that Ford was going to walk away from its investment in the UK over a bit of extra pay for a fraction of its workforce.

The NZ Government (a National Government) cynically exploited and exaggerated the threat of the Hobbit leaving for offshore to put the boot into workers and their unions. There was no way that Warner Bros were going to walk away from the $100 million already spent in NZ over a bit of extra pay for a fraction of its workforce.

The UK Government backed its people over the threats from the multi-national. It negotiated a settlement that saw the female workers’ pay grade returned to semi-skilled at 92% of the male rate and pledged to pass legislation requiring workers to get the equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex. The Equal Pay Act was passed two years later in 1970.

The NZ Government kowtowed to the multi-national. Warner Bros got $33 million as a ransom for the Hobbit; the Government knew the risk of it going offshore was small but didn’t have the balls to face Warners down. Supposedly at Warners request, but just as likely of their own decision, the Government then rammed through legislation specifically taking employment rights away from film workers. Ironically, this will probably most affect the technicians who failed to show solidarity with the actors. The Hobbit Enabling Act was passed two days later.


31 comments on “Made in Wellington”

  1. outofbed 1

    Yes Good film and point well made

  2. graham 2

    Helen clark once said when in a hole stop digging
    keep up the hobbit talk and remind mainstream nz why they dislike the unions

    • outofbed 2.1

      No it good to have a debate about the Unions

    • Colonial Viper 2.2

      Unionism and its crucial role in a modern economy is going to be at the forefront of discussions right up to elections, graham.

      By the way Peter Jackson and Warner’s pulled a dirty on the union – they waited for the global actors’ boycott to lift before going on the final offensive, attacking the union from the back in order to get to their goal – more tax payers’ money.

      If that global actors’ boycott had still be in effect, The Hobbit would have been sunk regardless of what country it was moved to, and Jackson would have been forced to capitulate.

      Jackson played the harder game of brinksmanship and, basically, lied to get the boycott lifted before sliding the stilleto into the union.

    • felix 2.3

      Thanks for the concern, graham.

  3. Lew 3

    A good point indeed, but the difference is clear: the Dagenham women and their male counterparts were unionised, and the union’s strike leadership was conducted with a mandate from the workers. If AE had held a similar mandate (or had even sought to work with, rather than against, other groups in the film industry who were already working on improving work conditions), then we might have seen a different outcome. But they didn’t. They went alone and found themselves isolated.

    A lot of this, as you say, does come down to a generation of union-busting, and that’s why it’s crucial to increase union membership and for workers to mobilise in a coordinated fashion. But that doesn’t excuse AE gambling with film workers’ careers without their buy-in, and AE’s action isn’t exactly helping the union movement.


    • So Lew AE should have done nothing?

      If you wait for the Trade Union nirvana where masses of workers collectively wait to take action you could be waiting for a while. The 90s caused huge damage to the Trade Union movement and they are still struggling. Waiting for them to develop the infrastructure to get a mandate could take a long time.

      It is really sad when some of the left buy into the propaganda of the right. The Hobbit counterattack was to provide a smoke screen so that a multinational could take more of our money.

      • Colonial Viper 3.1.1

        AE would have done better if they had strong support from their full membership, and also ensured other industry sectors fully understood why they were doing what they were doing.

        This is all in the postmortem of course, but the union movement has to do that post mortem in a sobre and realistic way, otherwise the union movement will not strengthen from this experience in the way that it should.

      • Juan Manuel Santos 3.1.2

        AE should have run a competent campaign. They didn’t and this is the result. Simple as that. No point moaning about it now.

      • Lew 3.1.3


        Ah, yes, the old refrain of “support the union, even when it’s actively damaging its own cause and the cause of the wider union movement, or you’re a Tory scumbag or (at best) a gullible fool”. I get this a lot.

        I’m not saying AE should have done nothing. The only alternative to “go berserk and fail totally” is not “stay at home and whinge”. On the contrary, I’m saying that they should have gotten their shit together before acting. IrishBill gave them some good advice early on, which they should have taken. Add to which, ensuring they were actually legally registered as a bona fide union in NZ would have been a handy start, preventing the DPFs of this world from scoring easy points by shouting “it’s not legal”; as CV says, coordinating with the rest of the industry and the CTU early and thoroughly, and negotiating in good faith rather than taking an evasive, aggressive position with a worldwide boycott. There was plenty they could have done, but the fundamental thing was laying the ground work so that their cause would be supported by the industry (or at least the absence of organised opposition).

        I agree that waiting for unionisation utopia is foolish. But so is alienating those whose support you (and the union movement) needs with ill-considered, dosorganised, easily-discredited action.


    • tea 3.2

      Right so the parrallels are invalided because the union was a bit bollocks?

      This is fucking funny.

      Pay equity unit Lew?
      Guano law anyone?(I’m sure you don’t have to go look that up)

      wait- do those south american countries have a full mandate for claiming those islands for their people? No? Better just let the yankees take them huh…

      I’m not saying the AE doesn’t deserve criticism, but it’s Paul Holmes and Chris Findlayson who need to be feeling the heat here. Oh they aren’t?

      because the allegedly liberal continue to look at the small picture.

      Heck if mild union incompetence is doing this ‘damage to the union movement’ (presuming that it isn’t a government/WB/SPADA publicity campaign) what about the damage that the Nats/Tolley/Bennett/Key/Wilkinson- who didn’t even know how the law works- should be doing to there cause? Because if one person does something stupid it invalidates any reason to support the entire movement right?

  4. Juan Manuel Santos 4

    Difference is the seamstress’ strike at Ford’s Dagenham plant was run properly and with a popular mandate and reasonably broad public support. AE’s campaign was a shambles and a disaster at every level.

    Competence makes all the difference in these things.

    • Bright Red 4.1

      doesn’t explain the government’s behaviour, or the techs shooting themselves in the foot.

      • Lew 4.1.1

        Sure doesn’t explain the government’s behaviour — the government’s nature explains that. but it does explain the techs’ & others’ response — absent a compelling case as to why solidarity was in everyone’s interests (and absent the slightest shred of evidence that AE were worth supporting) they fought to save their careers.


        Captcha: ‘disaster’

      • Colonial Viper 4.1.2

        Yes. And ironically SFX and post production technicians marched to fight and save their careers although their WETA jobs – even if the location shoots had been moved somewhere else – were not on the line.

        • Lanthanide

          See my comment #5 below.

          Also one of the key studios WB was talking about was the one set up in the UK for Harry Potter, which had all the special effects production team in place. I think it’s likely that had the production moved over there, less work would’ve come Weta’s way.

          • Colonial Viper

            In the you tube march video it was clear that WETA employees bought their partners, children and other assorted family members and friends along.

            WETA only employs 40 people directly huh. Not a real job spinner for WGN considering the amount of money it pulls in for Jackson.

            Also do not forget that WETA continues to rely heavily on contractors. Taylor’s comment is a clever piece of legal subterfuge contractors != directly employed.

            less work would’ve come Weta’s way.

            That’s a possibility, but I think that Jackson’s WETA would have signed up all the contracts for work already.

  5. Lanthanide 5

    “Richard Taylor got a few hundred of his technicians at Weta to knock off early from work one day and protest in Wellington”

    Actually he was on Morning Report and said that he only employs 40 people directly. The rest decided to join his march, after he’d sent emails out.

    • Joe Bloggs 5.1

      now then Lanth – mustn’t let the truth get in the way of a good Left wing conspiracy theory!

    • Bored 5.2

      I seem to recall the technicians concerned were not his employees but people who sub contract etc i.e interested parties in the film going ahead. i would also question the numbers, I saw them close up on the march and would estimate a few hundred max.

  6. randal 6

    ah well its all made in china now.

  7. deemac 7

    a sad reminder of the damage that 30 years of neo-liberalism have done. In the 1960s, the boss earned maybe 5 or 10 times what the worker did. Now it’s a thousand times more. Yet we are expected to fight each other for the crumbs.

    • Colonial Viper 7.1

      Senior remuneration packages to be limited to 30x the median wage. 79% tax on every dollar over that.

      If they want to be paid more, Captains of Business then need to find ways to push the median wage upwards.

      • Bored 7.1.1

        Its interesting to note that a major change during the neo lib era to corporate executive salaries is that they have seized a major component of the profits as exec salaries / bonuses / benefits. These profits were previously paid to the shareholders and contended for by the unionised workforce. As a shareholder this might be regarded as “internal theft” of shareholder value, few shareholders seem to think so as they all seem to have fallen for the line about “executive value”. Hence the outrageous and unjustified packages given the likes of Reynolds. I am not alone in predicting that as corporate results indicate decline in both revenues and real profitability the shareholders will rebel. As will the workers. Fun times.

        • Lanthanide

          Profits are paid to shareholders in the form of dividends. Since about 1995, investing in shares has been more about the capital gain than it has been about the dividend. It’s strange to think that back in the 60s, 70s, hell even the 40s and 50s, people invested in shares so as to get a stable income stream from dividends. Now it’s all a game of hot-potato and trying to ‘time the market’ and not be the sucker left holding the bag when the music stops.

          • Colonial Viper

            The stockmarket is not a repository of financial value, it never was, and it is madness that people treat it as such with their retirement funds. Absolute frakin madness.

  8. Guildford 8

    Isn’t there a point of difference between the two in that Ford were more clearly bluffing, or at least as portrayed in the film? If you have an already existing business with large amounts of capital and many employees it would seem very costly to close down and start up another factory in, say, France or Germany. By contrast a project that hasn’t started yet (yes, some initial expenditure, but not yet up and running) could more easily be transferred to another location.

    So for the analogy to be more appropriate to the Hobbit scenario, wouldn’t we have needed the Ford exec played by the guy from the West Wing to say “We’re thinking of opening a new plant in Europe, and we’d like to do it here in the UK, but if you go ahead with this gender equity business we might have to do it in another European country”?

    Any contributor know more about the original strike – just interested in the industrial relations history. I suspect the threat of cancelling projects has become easier in recent decades with, inter alia, the reduction of protectionist barriers and the like.

  9. Jeremy Harris 9

    I’m going to see this tomorrow…

    The last union movie I watched was called The Union (so original) and was about the first Black Railroad Workers Union in the US…

  10. David Tulloch 10

    For the analogy to work you would have to say that actors are being oppressed; the technicians would then represent the male workers. Do technicians and other non-acting workers in the film industry get a better deal than actors? (I have no idea what the general thinking is about this.)

    Also, the Actor’s union was not necessarily acting on behalf of, or with the support of, all it’s members. Many Wellington actors were firmly against any action. Many Auckland actors were in support. There are regional reasons for this. None were consulted, however, before strike action was taken. That would be like the Dagenham Union declaring a strike and then checking with the women to see if that was what they wanted only to discover many were happy with what they were being offered. Those of you bemoaning the lack of worker solidarity might want to consider that. Solidarity cannot be a given. Consultation is always required. Attempts to impose solidarity are the tactics of a dictator.

    • Colonial Viper 10.1

      Attempts to impose solidarity are the tactics of a dictator.

      That would be Peter Jackson and his Hollywood strong arm team in suits.

      NZAE in contrast acted weakly and didn’t cover their bases off with their key stakeholders. They’ll have learnt a hard lesson there.

  11. Jeremy Harris 11

    I enjoyed the film, it so clearly demonstrated what is wrong when unions align themselves politically and was a stirring example of the power of individualism, namely Rita’s, and the power of freedom of association – the girls…

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