Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More on the Hobbit, and unions, and general grumpyness

This blogging thing is supposed to be about writing stuff as it comes into my head but I’m easily distracted so this one is a few weeks late and started off as a rant about the Hobbit dispute and then went all over the place.

I had just returned from a large union rally at Parliament on the Thursday before Labour Weekend, when I opened an email that was forwarded to me from “Richard Taylor, Film Technician”. Sir Richard Taylor is more usually described as the multimillionaire head of Weta, and the term “film technician” usually refers to members of the Film Technicians Guild, which is the nearest thing to a union film crews have in New Zealand. The email invited me to an urgent meeting at Stone Street Studios in Miramar (owned by Peter Jackson) to discuss the union situation.

When I get an email from the boss, inviting me to the other bosses office, to talk about the union, I get suspicious, so I stayed home. Sadly, a lot of people fell for it and the meeting turned into a spontaneous protest against the Actors Equity union meeting (which was cancelled) and then a march on parliament by hundreds of film workers standing with their bosses against their fellow workers. On Labour day “Save the Hobbit” rallies were organised and promoted as “non political”. Most of these rallies were small and slightly pathetic, with groups of hobbit fans in costumes turning up, but the wellington one had hundreds of people at it, including a lot of film crew.

But a lot of film workers didn’t show and were deeply suspicious of how the situation was being manipulated by Jackson and his partners. Most were critical of equity and how they mishandled the dispute but could see that the hysteria was being deliberately whipped up by Jackson and the government.

The thing I want to talk about why a whole lot of film workers went to the rallies and got sucked into supporting their bosses demand for free government money and a change to the labour laws.

Some people on the left saw it as very simple. The film workers were scabs and traitors. But I don’t think it is as simple as that. As one person said to me during the dispute ‘ you cant scab unless your industry actually has a union tradition’ or something like that (His version had a lot of swearing in it).

Part of the problem is the film industry is made up of all sorts of individual contractors who are very independent and move from job to job, in between writing their own scripts and dreaming of scoring some funding so they can make their own films (i.e. become an employer). But most of the problem is throughout New Zealand society.

Since the 1980s (or maybe 1991 when the Employment Contracts Act came in and the CTU refused to fight it), most workers think unions are irrelevant to them or worse, actually a hindrance to their jobs. If you are under 40, chances are you have never had direct experience of being in a union. I can think of 5-6 friends or relatives who have been unfairly dismissed or had their working conditions changed illegally by the boss in recent months. None of them went to a union, and quite a few actively resisted the idea that a union could be helpful in that situation. One preferred paying a lawyer to free advice from a union, because she had a perception that unions were disruptive, corrupt organisations run by labour party hacks.

I tried to convince her this was not true, but halfway through I realised she had a point!

So, our problem is not that the people who marched against the actors union were scabs, the problem is those people would not even recognise the word scab. People I spoke to who went on the march, genuinely thought it was non political, and had no idea they were being used to push an anti union agenda. Since the end of the dispute some have thought about it and realised there was a bit more to it than they first thought but quite a few are still oblivious. Most had never thought about unions in their lives until a few weeks ago when they were told that a dodgy foreign union was threatening their livelihoods. And that is our problem. For twenty years, most workers have had no experience of unions at all, and have been told they are a bad thing. On the odd occasion that Unions do show up on the radar, they are almost inevitably run by labour party hacks who go out of their way to avoid rocking the boat or standing up for workers. So we can hardly be surprised when workers are so easily manipulated by the bosses, especially in an industry where the boss is a ‘national hero’.

The right has successfully framed the left as a bunch of authoritarian interfering “nanny state” types who want to interfere in other peoples lives. They are usually talking about the labour party when they do that and they are usually correct. The radical socialist left, when it gets mentioned at all, is dismissed as dangerous and mad.

What we have to figure out is how to build a real grassroots radical movement for social change. To do this we have to be prepared to try new things even if they don’t fit the little dogmatic ideologies we all have(and yes I mean, Marxists, anarchists and everyone else too), and we have to think big.

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