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.