Lessons from The Hobbit: more unionisation, not less

The Hobbit saga has been an ugly but edifying lesson in the realities of how industrial action interacts with political posturing and national identity. My own view is that Actor’s Equity did their industry and their country — I would say ‘their membership’, but when they set this ball rolling they didn’t have one — an enormous disservice. Lacking a mandate and any legal standing, they undertook almost the worst possible course of action of calling an international SAG boycott. They attempted to hold a national icon and his nationally-iconic production to ransom at the apparent behest of an Australian union (the MEAA) with a history of this sort of aggressive mismanagement and who stands to gain from any reputational damage suffered by the New Zealand film industry. Their cause is worthy, but they picked the wrong fight with the wrong person at the wrong time, on the wrong basis, employing the wrong tactics, and did so without the support of their industry. Almost everything they could do to lose this battle, they did.

But too much has already been written on that topic, and I won’t add to it any further. The point I’d rather make is that the incompetence shown by AE in this dispute would never have thrived in a more robust industrial relations culture: that is to say, one in which union membership and participation was the norm rather than the exception, in which more workers had an understanding of what their union was there for and the union in question understood their industry’s needs and agenda better.

Fundamentally, the entire problem here is AE’s lack of a mandate: even leaving aside the fact that they had no legal standing as a NZ union until this time last week, the trouble is that they represent a tiny fraction of the actors who form a tiny fraction of those responsible for the production of any film, and yet they have the apparent ability to blacklist that entire industry (whom they don’t represent). Even the most ardent trade unionist can surely see the moral hazard here. All those who we’ve seen fronting AE have been the best-respected and most-established actors; actors whose careers aren’t in material danger regardless of the outcome of The Hobbit. But what of those actors who are genuinely struggling, whose faces don’t appear in tens of thousands of living rooms every Tuesday night, and who don’t top “best-of” lists? And what of the silent legions of drivers, designers, artists, labourers, riggers, electricians, carpenters and caterers who are the real motive engine behind the film industry? Are their needs well-served by the actions of a few prima donnas who represent them without their consent? Apparently not, which is why a thousand of them turned out to protest the actions of that unelected few. Orcs, Chris Trotter called them; useful idiots said Idiot/Savant.

To an extent it’s their fault for not being adequately organised to mount a counter-insurgency against AE’s hijack of their industry. And that’s why my suggestion is for film industry workers to arm themselves and prepare to fight for their needs. Whether it’s in separate unions by sector or a single, unified screen workers’ union doesn’t much matter, as long as there is strong and robust organisation behind it which elects leaders who hold a genuine mandate to speak for the real needs of their industry. Nature abhors a vaccuum, and the only way that a handful of pretty faces and household names with little or no industrial relations experience and an Australian carpetbagger with a reputation for mischief-making get to speak for an entire industry is when the alternative is nothing. Conventional wisdom — particularly from the government — is to de-unionise, and already the veiled threats about the consequences of a general strike during the 2011 Rugby World Cup are beginning. But de-unionisation at a time like this simply cedes the field. Efforts must be redoubled — not only to negotiate the sorts of concessions gained by Irish actors for collective bargaining among independent contractors, but to ensure that whoever claims to have a union mandate in future has the crowd with the torches and pitchforks following them, rather than chasing them.


16 thoughts on “Lessons from The Hobbit: more unionisation, not less

  1. Lew,I think the only thing you got wrong here, the only thing that represents maybe a misunderstanding of New Zealand’s labour market, is that you should’ve written this line instead:

    “in which more workers had an understanding of what a union was there for”

    “A union” not “their union.” Ultimately, that’s why we’re un-unionised outside of the civil sector compared to Australia. And why our wages and conditions are so much worse than those across the tasman.

    The anti-unionist propaganda that has led even workers to think unions are unreasonable, undemocratic, unrelatable things that are just there to let people to be lazy is our chief problem.

    Unions don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be like that. But because so many New Zealander’s think that is what they are it becomes a self-aggrandising philosophy of those with the drive to get to the leadership of many unions.

  2. Some very good points, Lew. I think one of the main stories here is NZ actors’ struggle to form a workable union. It seems they have come from a very weak position, one that has been played on by the international production system up til now.

    I don’t think the actors fronting AE are so much prima donas, as a couple of actors who realise they are in a stronger position to voice what many actors have been muttering for years. For instance, Ive seen Karl Urban speak up for NZ actors a few years back in a letter to OnFilm. He seems to me to be someone committed to supporting NZ actors and unions in principle.

    But hopefully, this dispute can lead to a better organised and more democratic union.

  3. Has it ever occurred to you Carol that perhaps the reason there is a “weak” actors union here is because no one wants to join it or have anything to do with it?

    And if that is a natural conclusion, which it seems to be, don’t you then ask why?

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  5. Good question, Nick. I think it partly has to do with the PR unions tend to get. There’s a long history in NZ (and the west/Anglo countries) of disparaging unions – which is just how many employers and well-off people like it.

    Also, the movie/TV industry in NZ is a small one, with a shifting work-force and a lot of short-term, insecure work. I can understand that a lot of industry workers don’t want to be branded as a troublemaker or critical of their employers, and fear being branded as a union stirrer. There is an implicit intimidation here by the powerful big studios, even if unintended (or unacknowledged by some workers).

    But all that just reinforces the relatively weak position of a large number of industry workers. The whole reasoning (or raison d’etre) of unions is that it’s an unequal power relationship, with employers having most power and the potential to exploit individual workers (of course most employers don’t intentionally aim to exploit).

    As an individual a worker is in a very weak position, and easily intimidated. If workers stand together, they have more power.

    What many people don’t understand in the current issue is that employers tend to use any sign of splits between workers to their advantage – divide and conquer principle.

    The people planning so valiantly to protest in Jackson’s/Warner’s favour today, really don’t understand this, and how they are undermining actors’ bargaining position in the long run. I understand that they are motivated by a desire to work in their chosen industry, and to get opportunities to use and develop their talents.

    But, in the end, a good, well organised union, will improve their position. That’s why I agree with Lew that the NZ industry needs bigger and better unions, not less of them.

  6. The people planning so valiantly to protest in Jackson’s/Warner’s favour today, really don’t understand this, and how they are undermining actors’ bargaining position in the long run.

    Carol, this sort of ‘false consciousness’ argument only works if the union in question is actually doing what’s best for the workers. In this case all the evidence suggests that they’re not. People not involved in the conflict might think AE are doing wonderfully, but that view is contradicted by the objective reality of the situation. That’s pretty clear to anyone who cares to take a dispassionate look at the case.

    Most of the pro-trade union positioning on this rests on the maxim that whatever the union does is right for the workers. This would be true in a robust union system where the union understands and represents the needs of its workers, but this one patently does not. Union don’t get a free pass: the basis and outcomes of their actions need to be tested against the needs of those they represent. Where the union faithfully acts with a mandate from its workers, criticism regarding the effectiveness of its actions are a bit irrelevant since, even if what the union is doing seems stupid and wrong, at least it’s doing what its workers want. If AE undertook exactly tthe same idiotic strategy it has done here with a solid mandate from NZ screen workers I’d be right in behind them. But because the democratic foundation of the union system has broken down in this case, permitting a bunch of illegitimate grandstanders to speak for an entire industry, the outcome is perverse. AE is acting in the interests of an elite few to the detriment of many more, and as such is the enemy of the workers, not its ally.


  7. Money is the root cause of the current situation, especially combined with the incompetence of paid union organisers – such as Helen Kelly.

    MEAA want to manage and distribute the millions of dollars of residuals from a successful film, as well as the membership fees ( only had 89 NZ members in 2009 and it costs $229 to join, and $21/week for those earning $85K ). They collectd $49 million in residuals over 7 years, and if their administration fee is 15%, then $7 million to play with… The Hobbitt films were a potential goldmine, and I doubt the welfare of NZ actors was high up MEAA’s list when they lobbed the boycott grenade across the Tasman.

    Over the last decade, unions have failed to deliver for members, and consequently young employees have taken individual contracts that better meet their immediate needs. In the union I was a delegate for, the membership were older people who appreciated the concept of collectivism, as well as the well-entrenched benefits for the more mature, such as redundancy, enhanced parental leave, retirement leave, etc.

    Members were prepared to pay the not-inconsiderable union fee as the minimum energy path to employment contracts. Minimum energy path means that less that 2% of members turned up to the only picket in 2 decades, and about 20-30% turned up to meetings- whether AGM, pre-negotiation to identify bargaining goals, ratification of new agreements, election of delegates, etc. That’s not unusual, and is why unions have rules that motions are passed by a defined majority of those who attend plus any valid proxies.

    Unsurprisingly, union members expect quality advice from their Union, however unpaid and partly-trained delegates were the interface. Full-time union convenors covered all of NZ and a diverse range of industries, so struggled to help individual members in complex cases. They would tend to settle with employers, rather than initiate a potentially-expensive litigation path.

    Members soon discovered that hiring a lawyer with industrial relations expertise could attract better terms from the employer. Also, as we’ve just seen, power-hungry union staff can avoid the moral, if not legal, requirement of consulting with fee-paying members before any negotiations or actions against their employer. If I was a member of a Union that didn’t consult and obtain prior consent, I’d be pretty pissed.

    Employers generally offer the same terms and conditions to employees on individual contracts, without the added cost of union fees. Not surprisingly, few young people join Unions, and workplace coercion, from either employees or employers is illegal. Union fees are like insurance, only necessary when damage is imminent, or has occurred.

    Quite a few employers also offer bespoke tailoring of individual contracts to match individual’s needs. In a former workplace, a work force of 50 people had 22 difference employment contracts, with less than 10% of staff on a collective employment agreement. Employment contracts have become more important as recording the terms of any relationship.

    The issues with being a contractor, versus an employee, are more to do with the available position, and an individual’s hunger for the position. To get serious tax advantages, contractors have to invest in themselves ( training – a major reason why Bryson failed the contractor test ), their business, and tools.

    For employers, it’s about obtaining a desired service as and when required, at cost-effetive rates. Most NZ businesses now run on a mix of employees and contractors, because that’s flexible, but the entertainment industry has been doing it for decades.

    Apparently many of the participants are happy to work that way. However if an employer really wanted somebody, I’m sure they would offer the employment contract or service contract necessary to procure that individual. The converse applies to potential employees.

    If you really want workers to join unions, they unions have to offer greatly improved value for their fees – I’ve seen little recent evidence of 21st century employment environment awareness from the CTU, other than Arther Scargill attitudes, which may be relevant if employees plan to follow the path of dinosaurs and UK mining.

    Unfortunately, the new strain of Employment Relations Managers often regard employees as the liability who arrives at 0800, rather than the valuable asset who departs at 1700. It’s only line managers who can value experience and wisdom, and they often don’t participate in policymaking.

    To those would suggest Warner Brothers would not walk away from their NZ investment to date, you have to realise it’s currently only a small sunk cost, and greatly exceeded by future expenditure and possible savings. These are project bean counters whose bonuses, and possibly jobs, depend on budget compliance, so any potential unplanned delay is greatly feared.

    They will want concrete assurances of industrial harmony, as well as additional financial incentives to remain in NZ – why shouldn’t they utilise this unexpected opportunity to trim future costs, that’s what they are paid for… Somewhat ironic they will appear on Labour Day, but we don’t have Employers Day.

  8. It would appear that many of the film industry workers want to be in a Peter Jackson company union and regard their own interests as willing dependents on foreign film production as separate and distinct from the local industry and the global union solidarity cause.

  9. From the Herald today (25 October):

    “The unions had wanted to meet to negotiate the terms and conditions of the contracts for The Hobbit, but the producers declined on legal advice that collective bargaining amounted to price-fixing and was illegal”.

    If this is in fact the inital position of the Hobbit producers, then there is little reason for people who want to work on the Hobbit to join any union. The absence of a mandate is understandable, even before the free rider problems pointed out by Bruce, or the poor public reputation of unions in general.

    It is important that unions are representative and democratic, but before this they need provide some good reason for people to join them. In the past these reasons were provided by the government in the form of compulsory unionism, blanket coverage and compulsory arbitration. That system had its own problems, but a deregulated labour market, with minimum legislated standards, encourages the fragmentation of workers.

    Will joining a union get me a job, more money, more leave, protect me against unjustified dismissal? Not if everyone knows that the person who isn’t a member of a union will get the job/pay rise everytime.

  10. Lew calling on unions to be strong but condemning a weak union like AE for attempting just that is just a cover for union bashing. Internationally actors unions have rejected such advice and grown strong. But not in little NZ.
    Over the Hobbit the Hollywood bankers, the producers and directors are allowed to engage in union bashing so they can rip off their billions on the backs of the workers. Why should the union shut up? To do defend an icon? What’s an icon? A commercial creation that misrepresents national identity by making it conditional on massive profits. Unlike LOTR which is fantasy entertainment, the unions are real icons here because they represent a history of struggle for equality in this country.
    LOTR like the World Cup, becomes a national icon only because it is created as such big business as a fetish to misrepresent reality. Hollywood serves to promote the fetished reality of good over evil unrelated to everyday life.
    So when the actors say lets get our share of this supposed national icon since we have given our labour to it, the rude truth is revealed. National means business, not the citizenry. No iconic shares baby unless you take low pay, suck up the union bashing, tug your forelock and generally grovel before a branch of US cultural imperialism. Just goes to prove what a subservient semi-colonial society NZ is and those like you Lew who think that LOTR somehow changes that are deluding yourself.

  11. Ah, Dave, that’s just the ‘union right or wrong’ bollocks I’m talking about. I’m not bashing unions — I’m bashing unions who don’t have the support of the people whose careers they’re dicing with. I’m not condemning AE for attempting to gain a better deal for their workers — I’m condemning them for overplaying their hand, taking the nuclear-hostage option of a worldwide general strike without the backing of the wider industry, and generally permitting what should have been an ordinary industrial relations dispute to be turned into a huge political-symbolic attack on the union movement in general.

    If you can’t see the awful symbolism of an anti-union protest on Labour Day then I don’t know what’ll persuade you that they’re doing much more harm than good. This will be long remembered as an example of how not to do industrial action. And so it should be — but I wish it hadn’t had to.


  12. Actors are not in Unions because NZ law, unlike many other countries, does not extend employment protections to “independent contractors” and does not allow them to negotiate collectively.

  13. More aptly put, they are in unions but anti-union legislation reduced their relevance, and this latest legal move just exacerbates this.

  14. Indeed, and efforts to reform that state of affairs, similarly to how the Irish have done, were underway. Now what chance do they have?


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