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.