Hard News by Russell Brown


Anatomy of a Shambles

If production of the Hobbit does indeed go to Ireland, there will be an extraordinary irony: the industrial relations environment around the film will be benign because Irish Equity did what New Zealand Actors' Equity would have done had it been even minimally competent.

The situation in the two countries has been remarkably similar. Irish actors, like their New Zealand counterparts, have worked as independent contractors. There, as here, competition law (which exists to prevent price-fixing) precluded collective bargaining with multiple independent contractors, who are, effectively, multiple small companies.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

If Warners thinks the industrial relations environment in New Zealand has become too risky and unpredictable, it has some cause for thinking so.

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.

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 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.

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.)

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.

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