Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Don't let the weird nationalism break you up: thoughts on the Hobbit

She is 16 years old and she's an actress. Her friends may perform in school plays, but she is an actress - she has a job. She's in a TV show.

Today she is in wardrobe. One of the producers comes in - someone always checks the costumes. He touches her breast.

She tells her parents and her agent. They ring up the producers; they're angry. Her contract is terminated that day - breach of confidentiality - she talked about being sexually harrassed. By the next day the scripts have all been rewritten

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I didn't make that up. It happened on a New Zealand film set this century.

The government is at the moment passing a law which will exclude those working in the film industry from being employees - the default position will be that they are contractors. At the moment as independent contractors actors (and others in hte film industry) can be fired at any time for any reason - they have no right of due process.

What this means is that there is nothing to stop producers firing teenage girls, because they sexually harassed them. And when there's nothing to stop people abusing power, sometimes they abuse power.

Often it's not about an individual abusing power, it's about saving money. If you can fire people for any reason they're much less likely to complain about health and safety.

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At the moment (as you've probably already been told several times over the last few weeks) the conditions for actors are set out in the pink book - a non-binding agreement between Actors Equity and SPADA.

The non-binding bit is the problem - you can see how that'd be hard to enforce in an environment where someone can be fired for complaining about sexual assault.

This isn't actually something that has just happened over the Hobbit. Actors Equity have been working for years to negotiate binding wages and conditions for their members. They've tried lots of tactics some even made headlines - such as the negotiations with Outrageous Fortune. From what I've heard, the producers have thrown everything they had at keeping the union away from any form of negotiations.

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Imagine if you could be fired for any reason every day you go to work. Then imagine you're asked to change your terms and conditions. Imagine you're asked to work in dangerous conditions. Imagine a boss touches your breast. Imagine worse.

At various times and places in various industries, these sorts of conditions have been really standard. The film industry is not the only industry in New Zealand where they still are, but it is a significant one.

I want people to understand how much power companies have when there is no collective bargaining, and no employment law. That's not because I think we should only stand by the actors because their conditions are appalling,but because I want people to know what they're endorsing, if they oppose the actors struggle to get a binding negotiatiation for their wages and conditions. I want people to understand how high the stakes are, and how much power the companies have now.

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But this is not a story about the powerless screwing the people while the people do nothing. What is so important about the Hobbit is that the actors do have power. Outside New Zealand (including almost everywhere the Hobbit might have filmed in) the movie industry is well organised. The reason that Peter Jackson, WB and the government acted like the sky was falling in (to steal from Ian Mune) wasn't because the actors were powerless - but because the actors had organised and used their power. The threat of a global acting boycott was a real threat that they had the power to do real harm to the movie.

That is where some people who would agree with everything that I wrote in the first half of the post, lose patience and decide maybe they don't support the actors union. A lot of people have critised Actors Equity and MEAA for the way they used their power. Reading the Maps has a great post about the problems with fence sitting. I agree with him absolutely that is entirely compatible to stand in solidarity with the actors and criticise their tactics (although I also agree that only those who are knowledgable of the history of actors and unionisation beyond what has appeared in the news - I only know enough to know I don't know enough to enter the discussion). But I want to make a few more points.

My political position is that the only people to determine the actors struggle for union recognition and binding wages and conditions are the members of the actor's union.**

However, I understand that not everyone shares this position. Not everyone is a unioinist - and there is a part of the left where it is acceptable to balance and weigh things up and support the teachers because they're restrained, but think the radiographers might have gone too far, because they might hurt someone (hell there are, shamefully enough, parts of the union movement where this is acceptable). I want to unpack the implications of this balancing act in the case of the actors union.

Those who criticise AE and MEAA usually focus on the fact that the Hobbit could be moved out of the country, jeopordizing the film industry as a whole. Often they'll bolster their claims with talk about the right and wrong ways of negotiating, and how it's illegal for the company to meet with the union.**

There's something amazing about the passive voice - it can hide who is actually acting in the circumstance. The actors could not and would not have moved the Hobbit out of the country. The studio is the subject in a sentence about moving the Hobbit out of New Zealand. The studio could have agreed to meet with the actors, given them everything they demanded (which would have probably cost less than they spent flying the execs over from New York to meet John Key and see what they can get out of NZ government). They could have decided to move filming anywhere in the world. Whatever the studios decide, that's their responsibility.

To say otherwise is to support a "look what you made me do" position: don't provoke those with more power, and if you do you are responsible.

That's why it's impossible to sit on the fence in any kind of struggle where there's a power imbalance. Whether it's "I must finely examine the behaviour of those standing up to the powerful before I decide whether to support them. As if they make one mistake they are responsible for their provocative actions." Or "They appear to have lost, and therefore it should have been apparent that they would always lose and therefore I cannot support them." All this is predicated on accepting the power imbalance, and holding the actors responsible for the studio's power. The justifications people have offered for withholding their support from the actors have been grotesque.

Actors are workers, workers who at the moment gave access to neither collective bargaining, nor legal employment protections. They are organising to change that. If you stand with the bosses there's nothing I can do about that. But if you don't are your reasons for not standing with the workers really good enough?

Or you could just watch Florence Reece, who sums up the situation nicely:



* At this point someone always tries to execute a gotcha and say "well what if they were organising against women or Maori workers, . This isn't an unreasonable question - within in my lifetime unions have organised to exclude women from certain jobs. However, the point I make there is that the difference between a demand aimed at the boss and a demand made at other workers is a startlingly obvious one, and it is very easy to support the first and oppose the second.

** Which is just the kind of bullshit it takes two minutes to think through and expose. If WB can legally follow SAG minimums for American actors and MEAA minimums for Australian actors without that being price fixing. Then they can have collectively negotiated wages and conditions with their independent contractors in New Zealand. It's just that they don't want to with New Zealand actors, so they're hiding behind the law, and getting Chris Findlayson to help them out with that.

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