Sunday, October 24, 2010

Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story...or a good lynch mob

So there's nothing like a good bit of bullshit, mixed with some fervent nationalism, to whip people up in to a patriotic stupour.

And I do mean stupour. First Peter Jackson's film production company, Three Foot Six, refuses to even discuss minimum wages and conditions for New Zealand actors and now we have workers out on the street defending the right of companies to exploit us, many even saying that we should be priveliged to be provided with work, regardless of the conditions.

It shouldn't really come as a surprise, I've heard many people use the same arguments to defend companies that go to China and set up sweatshops. “Those workers should just be grateful that they are being given work. No matter that they work in industrial prisons, 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Some works better than none at all”.

Now sure, conditions in the New Zealand film industry are not as bad as a Chinese sweatshop but they aren't great. The simple fact is that most other countries (who have union agreements) have far better conditions than us and when their actors come to New Zealand to act in films, they have better conditions than New zealand actors doing the same work.

As Actors' Equity points out:

“In Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and America performers have standard contracts, which include minimum working conditions, and residuals on screen work. These contracts are negotiated between the performers’ unions such as British Equity and the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG), and producers. These contracts give performers and agents certainty about the minimum expectations performers should have on any film, television or theatre job. Agents of course are free to negotiate terms which are better than the minimum negotiated between their union and producers. In New Zealand there are no such contracts. While there is a set of guidelines, known as “The Pink Book”, these are not binding on any producer and do not stand up to comparison with the minimum conditions performers receive in all other English speaking countries. “

Many of the Actors and techies that are currently so upset with Actors' Equity are younger workers who have been in the industry less than ten years. Many work minimum wage in cafe's in their down time when work dries up, so working on any film production seems like a great thing. But many of these actors and techies will also end up leaving the industry. They will leave because they will find that this is not a sustainable career. This is no way to raise a family. This is no way to try and pay a mortgage on a house. Sure its fine when you're young and have few responsibilities, but try doing it for thirty or forty years. And this is the point. Many of the members of Actors' Equity have spent years developing the Pink book and trying to get minimum terms and conditions applied in the film and television industry so that it can be a career.

One of the major barriers is that producers refuse to employ actors and other film crew as 'employees' and instead make them work as independent contractors. This is a way of getting around New Zealand's labour laws, which would otherwise provide some minimum standards of employment.

To think this all started because Actor's Equity had the audacity to ask PJ's production company for a meeting to discuss terms and conditions of employment! Outrageous! Don't they know PJ is a god who will approach mere mortals when and how he sees fit?

Of course PJ and Co wouldn't have a bar of it. Three Foot Six refused to engage performers on union negotiated agreements, meaning that once again another NZ production would have no minimum guarantees of wages and working conditions.

But the Hobbit is not where the story begins. For a number of years Actors' Equity has been pushing for minimum terms and conditions in the NZ film and television industry. For years producers, both individual companies and the Screen Producers' and Development Association (SPADA) have refused to engage in meaningful dialogue. The Pink Book, which sets out minimum standards and conditions for actors, is rarely followed by production companies. An international meeting of actors' unions was organised and it was agreed that the only way to make significant progress would be to have support from the rest of the world - in this case actors' unions from 100 different countries. So when Actors' Equity put forward the reasonable request to Three Foort Six to discuss minimum terms and conditions for union members and were completely ignored, other unions from around the world came on board to show their support. In other words, the rest of the acting world wants New Zealand actors' to be treated better. The International Federation of Actors' put forward a request that union members refused to take work on the Hobbit until Three Foot Six agreed to meet with Actors' Equity and discuss minimum terms and conditions.

PJ went on the defense. Unfortunately Three Foot Six had nothing valid to defend so instead he had to put forward a string of lies and petty attacks on the union, such as:

Actors' Equity are “not a union and have none of the legal status of a union”. They are a”tiny organisation that represents a small minority of NZ actors” - FALSE
Actors' Equity are a legal union affiliated with the Council of Trade Unions. Any good producer would be aware of this.

“New Zealand law prohibits engaging in collective bargaining with any labour organisation representing performers who are independent contractors, as film actors clearly are.” - FALSE
All actors' film crew could be hired as employees on fixed-term contracts. NZ law is expressly designed to give employees the ability to bargain collectively, as the only way to balance out the unequal relationship between employer and employee. Production companies hire actors and other film crew as independent contractors so they can get around employment law and do whatever they want, guaranteeing no minimum terms and conditions. Even so this does not prevent production companies from meeting with unions and talking about collective terms and conditions, it just means there is no legal obligation to have to meet with unions. Any good producer would know this.

“I've been told that Disney are no longer bring movies to Australia because of the frustration with the MEAA.” - FALSE
Even the head of Disney, Rich Ross, came out and dismissed PJ's claims. “It's not the case...I'm not sure why he said it”. All major production companies are used to dealing with unions. Whether its Australia, USA or Britain, the norm is for the production companies to negotiate with unions. NZ is the odd country out.

He also showed his true nature, by adding a number of petty attacks against the union:
The MEAA is “an Australian bully boy, using its weak kiwi cousins”; “Money and power lies behind this threatening behaviour from our Australian cousins”; NZ Actors' Equity is a “tiny organisation that represents a small minority of New Zealand actors”; “They want greater membership, since they get to increase their bank balance”.

Funnily enough he started off his rant by saying “nobody seems to like to see the facts get in the way of a good story”.

All of these claims were false of course, but the media lapped it up. And this is where things really blew up. No critical analysis was needed. PJ will be happy to know that if he ever takes a shit there will be a hoard of MP's and a hoard of media reporters to lick his ass clean.

From this point on the media whipped up a storm of patriotism. The 'Australian' union bacame the villain and Warner Brothers the poor victim, now possibly having to move its production offshore because of uncertainty in the employment environment. PJ was, of course, the hero.

Non-union actors and techies jumped on board the band wagon. New Zealand is in the unfortunate position that we have a small industry and to a degree can be held to ransom. If we kick up a fuss, there will always be threats of companies taking their productions to another country. The Chinese sweatshop worker faces the same problem. The difference is that in China, workers are fighting back. They understand that they have a basic human right to negotiate their terms and conditions and even though they face all kinds of repression, they stand up and fight. Last year there were 318,000 reported labour disputes in China, the real number being far higher. Sadly in New Zealand the response from many in the film industry has been to say that we should be happy with whatever we can get and that it is a privilege to work on a major blockbuster production. This is equivelant to the Chinese sweatshop worker saying that it doesn't matter how they are treated because they get to sew Gucci clothes!

Actors' Equity finally managed to get a meeting with SPADA last week (14th October) and sort out some basic terms and conditions for New Zealand productions. It was agreed that productions would follow the Pink Book until March next year and then new terms and conditions for the Pink Book would be agreed upon. Actors' Equity members voted to ask international unions to lift their bans. This was communicated to Warner Brothers and a press statement was agreed on.

This wasn't enough for PJ and Co though. On the 20th October a meeting was held at Weta studios where Richard Taylor whipped up some techies in to a ferver and they marched down, mouths frothing, to a meeting that was going to take place between SPADA and Actors' Equity. The point of this little protest is unclear, as PJ and Co knew that everything had been sorted out. It seems that PJ still wasn't happy though. The following day he released a press statement, along with Fran Walsh again attacking the union, speaking of the “pure gutlessness of this small self-centered group” who had “tried to bully us in to illegal collective bargaining”.

Now on labour day, a public holiday established to commemorate the fight for the eight hour day and a time for us to reflect on years of struggle to achieve the workplace rights we now have, on this day thousands of workers are going to attend a rally begging for a company to come and exploit us. Telling the company that we will do anything, and will not ask any questions, as long as you grace us with your presence. We will be your sweatshop and we will love it.

What should be happening is that the whole film industry, whether union or non-union, should be getting together and discussing how to develop better terms and conditions of work, while keeping production companies operating in New Zealand. This is not an easy task, as the events of the last month have showed, but if we want a film industry where people can have real careers and real work life balance, then it needs to happen.

1 comment:

  1. The "you should be grateful to do work you don't hate" thing is something that plagues the creative industries, eh. It irks me that they're even "industries," frankly. But if they must be industries, they must at least be subject to industrial regulation!

    Did you see the Dom Post coverage the other day? The picture they had of PJ was just perfect - his sad face and the quote, "PJ is personally hurt..." As another friend of mine said, it's partly that he hasn't quite understood that as The Boss, he does indeed have the power to exploit people. "Oh hay guise, wanna work on my movie? I'm an indy guy so the pay won't be great, but it's art."

    Keep up the good work, Duncan. In particular, I found your point about the ages of actors in the dispute really interesting.

    Ps: awesome title.