It may sound like light-hearted news from the ‘human interest’ section of the newspapers, but for the unions and film industry in New Zealand it is a serious affair: the struggle over the unionization and contractual terms of the workers who are to work on the new Hobbit movies for fabled ‘Kiwi’ filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson. For a long time the movie plans were dormant due to the bankruptcy of would-be producer Metro Goldwyn Mayer, leading among other things to the prospective film director Guillermo Del Toro giving up on it, but Jackson himself has taken on the film production project and the whole thing seems to have been given the green light. Now, however, a full-blown industrial and legislative dispute has arisen over the plans by Sir Peter Jackson to employ most of the technical workers as well as minor actors as freelance contractors rather than full employees, meaning they would not be entitled to sick leave and similar workers’ rights. Due to the nature of film production, with cycles of little activity followed by period of intense and long work days to get shooting, prop and technical work done on time, the common ‘worker bees’ in the film industry are already subject to relatively harsh conditions compared to most skilled labor in Western countries.
What makes the affair remarkable is of course the movie’s fame, especially following up on the massive financial and artistic success of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings movie series. This makes it all the more shameful that Sir Peter Jackson has attempted to aggressively tar the unionization attempts to resist this forced freelancing as an attempt by the Australian film industry union MEAA to take over affairs in New Zealand.(1) This blatant appeal to nationalist sentiment among New Zealanders, ever sensitive to the presence of their ‘larger brother’ across the Tasman Sea, does not hide the fact that the reality is Jackson making use of New Zealand’s particular union-unfriendly laws. As Jackson pointed out himself, New Zealand’s laws in fact do not just make it difficult to unionize, but they actively prohibit such unions in the case of freelance contractors. This is not the first time either: in 2005 a prolongued legal struggle ended when the New Zealand Supreme Court judged in favor of a worker for the Lord of the Rings miniatures workshop, associated with Richard Taylor’s WETA film workshops, determining that one cannot hire a ‘freelance contractor’ full-time as an integral part of its own business without that person becoming an employee.(2) As a result of Jackson’s fulminating over the effects of this decision, the conservative-liberal government of Prime Minister John Key has actually gone so far as to change the law to undo the Supreme Court’s decision as well as awarding several tens of millions of dollars in additional tax breaks, over Jackson’s threats to take film production elsewhere.(3)
Indeed, the union itself had been in some disarray over the confrontation, and reportedly some part of the technical workforce was unhappy about the possible consequences if the filming were to be withdrawn from New Zealand. This is likely because such film industry work is very specialized in its applications and therefore workers are highly reliant on getting employment from the few large projects that come in, without being able to switch easily to some other branch of industry for similar work. Similarly, most actors who are not major stars are often in rather difficult straits, having to depend on strongly conjunctural work patterns for income and as easily replacable workers are equally easily extorted by powerful film production companies. In any case, there are good indications to believe that the union Actors’ Equity itself has made serious blunders: it failed to use pressure on the government rather during the entire period between the NZSC decision in 2005 and the recent events, even when the government was in the hands of a social-democratic party that might have been amenable to codifying the decision substantially in law. It is also not clear how representative it is of the very large numbers of workers Jackson routinely employs for his visionary productions. It is worth pointing out that while Actors’ Equity let matters come to a head at the very last moment, ensuring maximum opposition by producers, public and government alike, the Irish actors have actually succesfully gained the right to regular representation by law at this same time.(4)
At a time when unemployment is high, a union can be better off preparing the ground more carefully and choosing its battles in such a way that it is likely to win them, rather than making unnecessary ‘last stands’. This is not from false concern by liberals, but out of a real fear that the occasion may now be used to allow further repression of unions in New Zealand and the negative effect the developments will have on the position of film industry workers elsewhere. Indeed, in the global scheme of things, such affairs are negligible; they do not compare well with, say, the Naxalite insurgency in India or the Filipino New People’s Army. But whatever the position of skilled workers in the Western world compared to the poor masses, there can be no doubt about where to stand in a conflict between their unions and the interests of millionaires in one of the most monopolistic industries the world knows. The poor tactics on the part of the union have opened the door for further rollbacks against union power internationally, and this at a critical stage when unionization is dropping fast and our ruling classes have undertaken a renewed full assault against the collective commons. It is important we do not allow this to happen again, and Jackson c.s. should be ashamed to collaborate with such union-busting efforts.
1) Dave Burgess & Anna Turner, “Urban backs unions over Hobbit”. http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/4172672/Urban-backs-unions-over-Hobbit
2) Bryson vs. Three Foot Six Ltd. (2005 NZSC 34), http://www.ipsofactoj.com/international/2006/Part01/int2006(01)-013.htm.
3) “Studios thank John Key”. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/4290225/Studios-thank-John-Key
4) Anthony Garvey, “Irish actors win collective bargaining right”. The Stage News (Sept. 27, 2010).