One of my biggest disappointments of the Hobitt dispute has been watching the way in which Russell Brown has been so quick to take sides against the actors union. Today he was at it again and, as much as I dislike cut and paste posts, I feel there are a few things that need to be corrected. So let’s start from near the start of Russell’s post:
Irish Equity changed that. Not by brinksmanship, boycott, or targeting high-profile productions, but by working out what needed to happen, and working towards it. It lobbied the Irish government for an amendment to competition law to allow collective bargaining — and last month, got that change.
The Screen Actors Guild has no case against the film being made in Ireland, and you can bet that the Irish union will not be attempting any stunts against the production.
NZ Equity might not have much show of persuading the present government to amend the law, but it never tried, even under the arts-friendly Clark government. Even now, it could have gone to Labour under Phil Goff, and stood a very strong chance of such a change becoming Labour policy.
Equity didn’t “not have much show” they had no show. Partly because they only got organised in the last days of the Labour government and partly because industrial relations are a lot more wild west here than they are in Ireland. Essential Russell is saying they should have embarked on a pointless, expensive and doomed to fail political campaign. WTF?
Instead, since its takeover by the Australian Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Equity has been so feckless that it failed to file reports for three years, until it was struck off the register of incorporated societies. New Zealand actors have a decent case for greater power and security in their industry. Their union – and the Australian union that was supposed to bring in a new era of professionalism – has failed them.
The registration was a bit rough but in a similar “crap at legal stuff” vein Peter Jackson has been claiming minimum standards are illegal. And yet Russell hasn’t made a big deal of that lack of “professionalism”. In fact he’s even repeated this bollocks.
Eighteen months ago, Equity refused an offer from the Screen Production and Development Association (Spada) to renegotiate the “Pink Book” code of conduct which covers actors’ pay and conditions and has been untouched since the MEAA moved in. Its precondition for any talks with Spada was that the existing system, which does generally work, be scrapped and replaced with collective agreements.
Yes, the same collective agreements which breach the law. Which is why – although the SAG member alert that signalled the boycott claimed (misleadingly) that it had been called because “the makers of feature film The Hobbit – to be shot in New Zealand next year – have refused to engage performers on union-negotiated agreements” – the actors union and the CTU eventually settled for a discussion with Spada about terms and conditions. The discussion the union refused to have nearly two years ago.
This is disingenuous. Collective agreements would be perfectly legal if producers employed film workers as fixed term and casual employees. The union resistance to negotiating the pink book was based on the fact it is not enforceable and the union wanted something better (hint: “something better” is what unions generally want). But, as I have pointed out in earlier posts, there are workaround ways that a union can negotiate for independent contractors. The producers of the Hobbit refused to do this. In fact they refused to even meet with the union until the ban was brought down.
To be fair to Russell the end result has been SPADA negotiations. That’s because the Hobbit producers successfully beat the union down from its position of wanting a Hobbit contract. I find it a little sickening that Russell uses this as a reason to stick the boot into the union again.
It actually got more farcical this morning when Kelly, in statement headed Facts on Hobbit, said
Following a meeting last week, which included Hon Gerry Brownlee, good progress is being made on developing an industry standard through improving the content and form of the current “Pink Book”.
So the union that has refused for years to renegotiate the Pink Book is … renegotiating the Pink Book? What brilliance.
Once again, the union has been forced to default back to the pink book negotiations. Personally I find Brown’s sarcastic attack on the union for trying to get a better deal for its members and not quite making it is disgraceful.
There were other things wrong with the union’s strategy, if it can be called that. The way the first meeting in Wellington was run was a disgrace – while anyone who turned up and called themselves a performer was allowed to vote in Auckland, the rules were changed in Wellington after the vote had begun to exclude non-Equity members. One actor trying to read a statement from Jackson (who had been refused permission to address the meeting) was shouted down and couldn’t finish.
Russell knows this isn’t true. He made this claim in an earlier post and was corrected by someone who was at the meeting. But he’s repeated it again. And was corrected again. That’s getting very close to knowingly lying.
Most notably, statements from organiser Frances Walsh clearly indicated it was seeking to negotiate a national agreement via The Hobbit (why else talk about wanting to negotiate rules on nudity in a film which features no nudity?) and Robyn Malcolm managed to say in successive sentences to John Campbell that they wanted “a fair deal for New Zealand actors working on the Hobbit”, but an agreement that was “not Hobbit-specific”. I’ve explained before why it would have been unethical for Jackson to put himself in that position.
There’s nothing unusual about using a negotiation with a big employer to create benchmark terms and conditions. It’s called pattern bargaining and it happens in every unionised industry in the country. It doesn’t mean that an agreement is negotiated with one employer that covers all employers in the same industry. In fact there has been no law to allow for such a thing since the awards were ended in 1990. If Peter Jackson had negotiated a deal with actors it would not have, could not have, set a legal precedent. And it certainly wouldn’t be “unethical” – that claim is simply hysterical.
By the time they’d settled for far less – and finally agreed to talk to Spada without showstopping preconditions — the damage had largely been done. Yes, if Ireland gets the gig, it will be because of its more-generous-than-the-others tax breaks. But the film was going to be made in New Zealand. The door for other countries was opened when MEAA executive Simon Whipp authorised the SAG member alert that brought the production to a halt by banning actors from working on it.
Russell’s got a strange thing against Simon Whipp, in a previous post he quoted a whole lot of industry scuttlebutt in a clear attempt to brand him as a troublemaker. I’ve never met Simon in my life, but I’ve also never met an effective union organiser that didn’t have someone calling them a troublemaker. Of course many of them have made “trouble” by simply insisting that workers are treated legally. Like I said, I don’t know Simon but neither does Russell. But unlike Russell I’m in no hurry to abuse the guy without knowing the full story. Nice to see that Russell is acknowledging the tax breaks though. Pity he’s too busy with his anti-union rant to think about the industrial/political/PR ramifications of that simple point.
If Warners thinks the industrial relations environment in New Zealand has become too risky and unpredictable, it has some cause for thinking so.
Risky? Compared to what? Unionised film workforces around the world? To be fair the film industry in NZ is a bit cowboy but that is very much a culture created by employers in that industry. If certainty is what’s wanted I’m sure the Hobbit producers could simply employ all workers as employees and then bask in the certainty, stability and predictability of NZ’s very stable employment law. But they haven’t. Seems a bit odd, no?
Exactly what happened with respect to the boycott supposedly being lifted on Thursday, that’s murky. The union claims to have agreed to the alert being rescinded, but consented to Warners’ request to announce it itself. The producers insist the ban was never lifted. It may be that someone has pulled a swifty on the union here.
Deal was done, boycott was lifted and a joint release was written. Then the producers went back on the deal and attacked the union. See what I mean about the employers creating an unstable environment?
But it was telling that the CTU’s Helen Kelly said on Nightline last night that the Equity meeting had been called for members to discuss “what they wanted in terms of terms and conditions”.
You’re saying that after all this — you still don’t know what you want?
It’s called a reportback meeting. It’s part of the democratic to and fro of unionism. Again I’m a little concerned by how incredulous Russell is when it comes to the union’s (very normal) processes but how credulous he is when it comes to the employers, for example:
It’s also generally not a good sign for a union leader, as Kelly did, to refer to the 1000-plus working people who met and marched in Wellington last night, most of them members of their own guilds and unions, as being in a “lynch mob” mood.
I saw this little protest and it was 150 absolute tops. I doubt many of them were in a guild or union as they were mostly dependant contractors being led by the guy who employs them. Which is not to invalidate their point but it was odd to see workers protesting against work rights. Especially as the industry contractors I know (who would all happily be employees if the law was applied properly) will tell you their biggest work issue is job security. Frankly the whole situation was ugly and I hope I don’t see such a thing again.
None of the other screen guilds have spoken in support of Equity, and they have privately assured both Spada and the government that they are on the side of the producers in this case. (NB: I can’t immediately verify what I’ve been told (by two people), and Writers’ Guild member Dean Parker tells me it’s not true, so I’m happy to withdraw that sentence.)
Again Russell rushes to run anti union gossip and then only backs down (and then only in a qualified manner) when he’s corrected by Parker (who has too much mana for Brown to snidely write off).
Even if the film can be hauled back here – and that’s the state of play – this will have badly damaged relations in the industry. And if the film really is lost, it will damage a lot more than that – the trade union movement included.
Firstly the film hasn’t gone anywhere so “hauled back” is a little hyperbolic. Secondly, the damage to relations in the industry has been lurking under the surface for many years; it’s only with this dispute that the sick culture of the industry has been put in the limelight. And thirdly the trade union movement will be just fine thank you Russell, despite your concern-troll melodrama.