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Some advice for Actors Equity

Written By: - Date published: 11:45 am, October 2nd, 2010 - 29 comments
Categories: Media, Unions - Tags:

It seems now that Peter Jackson is refusing to talk to Actors’ Equity because it would affect the whole industry.

Frankly it’s starting to look like one excuse after another – a pattern of hit and run anti-negotiation tactics that anyone with experience in industrial relations since the 1990s will find very familiar.

When I look at the way this is playing out I suspect that Jackson (or whoever is running the show from the producers’ side) has engaged some sharp operators to run this dispute.

The playbook is an old one but one that is tried and true:

1. Find a way to demonise the union as an interfering third party (in this case bullyboy Aussie outsiders)

This is an essential story to set up from the start because it takes the public focus away from the the workers involved – a move that makes it hard to humanise the dispute and misdirects from the main point of the dispute (in this case the workers’ desire for minimum standards)

2. Claim the union has no mandate (in this case claiming it has no legal right to bargain and low membership)

This continues the outsider narrative and drives a wedge between union and non-union workers.

3. Threaten capital flight.

This pushes the wedge between union and non-union workers deeper and, in the case of a national industry, helps set the public against the union.

4. Keep moving the goalposts.

The news cycle is fast and shallow. If you can keep setting up new stories with different anti-union angles you force your opponents to be constantly reactive which drains their resources and keeps them on the back foot. It also works to keep the focus away from the the core dispute.

5. Play to your strengths (in this case the saint-like reputation Peter Jackson has)

I think it’s interesting to see Jackson has not appeared on radio or TV or, as far as I can tell, spoken directly to journalists at all. I suspect this is because his handlers have decided he would not be sympathetic talent in the flesh.

6. Get it over and done with as quickly as possible.

It’s hard to sustain the moral high ground for long with spin, over time the facts start to catch up and public opinion turns against you.

So what can the union do to battle this?

1. Get your facts straight and find a clear way to express the core dispute in a single sentence.

The key claim seems to be minimum standards – every comment the producers make is aimed at shifting the focus away from this basic fair claim. Every comment the union makes should push to return to it.

2. Be proactive with the media.

Answer all calls asap, ring journalists who repeat pro-employer lines and have a chat about what the facts are and why the employer lines are misleading.

3. Write a simple, short factsheet.

This will help you focus your argument and provide you with a resource to take to the public and the media.

4. Do as much broadcast media as possible.

Right now Jackson and the producers seem extremely unwilling to front directly to the media. This is probably because they don’t want to risk going off script. The union should take advantage of this to fill that space. Especially given the fact they already know how to do well in front of a camera.

5. Don’t forget about social media.

Facebook, blogs, msm comment sites are all increasingly influential. Given this dispute involves union members in the film industry a short youtube video explaining the core dispute would be a good idea. Releasing it to the blogs would help it go viral. You may also want to talk to people with online influence who should be natural allies such as Russell Brown.

6. Use real stories

The employer has an incentive to make this about anything other than the core conditions. Gather a few stories from your members about exactly how bad conditions are and start telling them. It helps humanise the issue and brings the focus back on the need for minimum standards.

7. Talk to the CTU.

Actors Equity may be doing this already but if they’re not they need to realise there is a pool of people in the wider NZ union movement that have a lot of experience in dealing with this kind of union-busting. There’s no need for AE to reinvent the wheel.

8. Shore up your members and talk to non-members as much as possible.

It is extremely disheartening for union members to see story after story attacking them and even worse when non-union members who are scared by the employers’ spin also attack them. Most union members are just ordinary people trying to get a fair deal and will be feeling very vulnerable right now.

9. Don’t lose heart.

The longer this goes on the harder it is for the employer to spin it. As more of the facts enter the public sphere most Kiwis will support the actors – we’re a nation with a strong sense of fairness.

Terms and conditions in the film industry have been pretty bad for a long time now and a set of minimum employment standards would be a bloody good and perfectly reasonable idea (and I’m not talking about the unenforceable “guidelines” of the pink and blue books).

But if the current dispute is lost it will take a very long time to build up momentum to have another go. That’s what the industry employers are banking on and there are serious dollars at stake. That’s why they’re playing this one for keeps.

As an aside, I’ve got a few ideas about who the hobbit producers are using as advisers in this dispute but if anyone out there knows they should feel free to mention it in the comments.

29 comments on “Some advice for Actors Equity”

  1. Terms and conditions in the film industry have been pretty bad for a long time now

    Many would beg to differ and that would also depend on which film industry you compare to.

    I’m sure our actors are way better off than those in Eastern Europe, Nigeria And Bollywood.

    The key claim seems to be minimum standards

    Dunno eh ?…For all the hype and drama, this seems mostly about actors wanting profit shares if the movie blows up.

    So are these minimum standards then the bottom line to be applied across the board for all productions including the low budget local ones or applied only when there’s a big production to gouge a lil’ more dosh out of ?

    • IrishBill 1.1

      I’m aware some people do quite well out of the film industry but a lot don’t. I think minimum stands would go some way to addressing this disparity.

      If better off than third world nations is your standard could I suggest you get a little more ambitious for New Zealand?

      • pollywog 1.1.1

        I think that for those who don’t do well out of the film industry is not so much to do with the film industry, but themselves.

        I’ve got my own personal set of minimum standards i weigh up, trade off and ultimately decide whether the project is something i want to do and something that’s worth my time and energy to put into. Rarely is it about money and what i can get out the back end of it.

        I’m all about the art mate and i dont do shit gigs either 🙂

        hmmmm ambitiousness…how about just trying to stay ahead of third world status ?

      • prism 1.1.2

        Peter Jackson did get ambitious for New Zealand and succeeded financially and critically we mustn’t forget that. And his ambitious New Zealand ideas have led to further film-related businesses and work in New Zealand, and capital investment here.
        All good stuff – someone creating a different business for NZ, not just buying up existing businesses and selling off their assets as so many of our wealthy men have accumulated money from.

      • Nick K 1.1.3

        All of your arguments are invalid because cast and most crew are independent contractors so there is no employer.

        • Craig Glen Eden

          Thats the point Nick K they are not independent contractors. This industry has been using the independent contractors mechanism to keep wages down and to be able to fire at will for years.

          Do you really not understand that or do you just think the workers should just get enough so they can survive until the next little job comes along.

          • james

            the actors themselves are choosing to class themselves as independant contractors rather than employees. hence, for them to attempt to collectively bargain for minimum terms is illegal.

  2. Rharn 2

    Yea got some ideas on this myself. Funny how the ‘right’ does not complains about Australian based PR spin merchants getting involved in our politics.

    • Anne 2.1

      “… got a few ideas about who the hobbit producers are using as advisers in this dispute”.

      Crosby/Textor? First thing that came into my head 😉

      Anti-spam: LIKELY

  3. ianmac 3

    Last night, John Cambell asked the two women from Actors Equity exactly what was it that they wanted. To me their answer was pretty hard to understand. It wasn’t about money they said. It was about conditions. What conditions? I am not quite sure what they want. Perhaps someone else cleverer than me, understands.

    • gingercrush 3.1

      I didn’t watch John Campbell but did watch The Nation today and they are rather incoherent and its been problematic all week. They really need a clear communication strategy.

    • IrishBill 3.2

      I agree, they need to do better than that. Especially as they’re up against some serious pros. That’s what this post is about.

    • Swampy 3.3

      They want a collective contract as per section 33 of the Employment Relations Act, the absolute right for a union to demand a collective contract, and one which has caused a lot of industrial unrest since 2005.

      Now you know, history repeats itself. If the unions keep shooting themselves in the foot with this kind of demands through this clause, then the government might just change it back again to the original 1999 enactment.

      • IrishBill 3.3.1

        So that’s your argument – suck it up or we’ll hurt you more? That’s extremely short sighted when the boot may well be on the other foot at any time. And indeed the boot seems to be on the other foot in terms of the boycott.

  4. prism 4

    Union wages and conditions negotiations –
    10 Talk to your target employer if and when he/she wishes with the object of firmly putting a cogent case for the conditions you wish and enumerating the positive benefits of these, limiting negative talk to a minimum.

    • IrishBill 4.1

      That’s for when you get to the bargaining table. What AE has been confronted with here is a concerted and well-planned campaign by the employer to stop that happening.

  5. Dan 5

    Lorraine Rowlands at Massey University did an interesting study last year of life for the freelance film person in New Zealand. I think it explains their insecurity very well.


  6. salsy 6

    So how exactly is forcing Peter Jackson to not only unionise the NZ film Industry, but then singlehandedly and without consultation set the terms and conditions to rest of New Zealand be deemed fair, ethical or even democratic? How can this be fair on a grass roots and largely independent industry? How can it be fair even to actors/crew who will no longer be able to be hired on local indies – dont forget these make up the bulk of our industry? How can it be fair to the guy (next door) who is mortgaging his house to fund a feature? How can this be fair on an industry trying to remain attractive to hollywood despite a high dollar and lack of tax incentives?

    Im not convinced. Why would we risk it all on a set of demands that dont even seem to really exist? When money and condititions apparently arent even an issue? Should we not be thinking about the greater good here? Or are we too hogtied and blinded by ideology to protect the future of this industry, its jobs and competitiveness? We might get called Mexicans with cellphones, but I for one would rather be that, than unemployed living in the Detroit of the film world.

    • Colonial Viper 6.1

      Or are we too hogtied and blinded by ideology to protect the future of this industry, its jobs and competitiveness?

      Minimum employment rights and conditions aren’t much too ask for though, right?

      How can this be fair on a grass roots and largely independent industry?

      I think you’ve forgotten that the ‘grass roots’ are the ordinary workers and actors in this industry who deserve minimum employment rights and conditions.

  7. smhead 7

    Good strategic advice Irish.

    Actors Equity haven’t done themselves a whole lot of favours.

    1. The first thing AE should do is ensure that actors have a registered union.

    2. Then take on a number of cases in the ERA of actors as independent contractors, to try and have them declared as employees under the ERA. It worked in Bryson and Three Foot Six in the ERA five years ago, and there are many other cases depending on the individual circumstances that will give the NZ film industry, particularly SPP a real fright http://www.ers.dol.govt.nz/law/case/themes/jul-05.html

    3. Then for those actors not deemed employees but remain as independent contractors, form a single company owned by AE members to negotiate a contract agreement with minimum standards Jackson and SPP, through which AE members would be employees of the AE company. As long as they are a single company, rather than individual companies colluding with each other to price, they aren’t in breach of the Commerce Act.

  8. Colonial Viper 8

    The NZ Herald has a pretty interesting interview with Ian Mune about the dispute. A common sense interpretation at last, without all the highly paid PR spin.


  9. Tiger Mountain 9

    Agree with article, hopefully NZCTU and other unions can help inject some better management of this dispute.

    Facebook is looking pretty ugly particularly http://www.facebook.com/hobbitnz (aka Keep the Hobbit flim shoot in NZ). One particular dickhead is calling for burning effigies of Jennifer Ward Lealand and another calls AE members “stalkers, and paid for commenting on blogs and FaceBook” in favour of Equity. Various others trumpet their willingness to work for free on the Hobbit. Vile stuff. Standard readers supportive of Irish Bill’s comments could consider helping out the handfull of Equity members battling the ignorant hordes on FB.

    This industry looks like a rabble quite frankly at the moment, with division between Auckland Wellington, Actors and technicians, all workers and producers, producers and directors.

  10. john 10

    Once released the Hobbit will make huge profits guaranteed. Jackson must negotiate so that the actors and other workers get decent standards and income, a Union is a must in this process : It seems to be a human failing not just the rich (Though they’re the worst,the more you have the more you deserve) that we will never cough up money for others more than necessary(Kiwis are generous to charities) unless they get an arm lock on us!

  11. Joe Bloggs 11

    The union’s playbook – an old one but one that is tried and true (and full of the same tired memes):
    1. Find a way to demonise the producers as greedy corporates, and rich capitalist pigs who have ridden to wealth over the backs of the downtrodden working class

    This is an essential story to set up from the start because it takes the public focus away from the economic benefit that the producers have created – a move that makes it hard to humanise the dispute and misdirects from the main point of the dispute (in this case the interference by an unregistered organisation from another country)

    2. Claim the producers have no ethics (in this case claiming they are working to exploit the poor downtrodden workers)

    This continues the outsider narrative and drives a wedge between producers and public

    3. Threaten strike action.

    This pushes the wedge between producers and New Zealand deeper and, in the case of a National led government, helps the opposition cry foul over National Labour laws.

    4. Keep moving the goalposts.

    The news cycle is fast and shallow. If you can keep setting up new stories with different anti-producer and anti-Jackson angles you force your opponents to be constantly reactive which drains their resources and keeps them on the back foot. It also works to keep the focus away from the core dispute.

    5. Play to your strengths (in this case play the tall poppy card against Peter Jackson)

    I think it’s interesting to see Jackson has not appeared on radio or TV or, as far as I can tell, spoken directly to journalists at all. I suspect this is because his handlers have decided he would not be sympathetic talent in the flesh. Of course he’s a successful man which makes him a doubly attractive target of smears and innuendo.

    6. Get it over and done with as quickly as possible.

    It’s hard to sustain the moral high ground for long with spin, over time the facts start to catch up and public opinion turns against you.

    See anyone can write this sort of crap…

    • IrishBill 11.1

      I’m flattered you’re so upset by my post that you’d respond like this. Thank you.

      • Joe Bloggs 11.1.1

        enjoy that warm moist feeling while it lasts you delusional prat

        • IrishBill

          I’d usually ban you for that but watching you get all angry and frustrated is just too damn entertaining.

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    BeehiveBy beehive.govt.nz
    2 weeks ago