Welcome to Warner Bros. presents The Shire, formerly known as New Zealand
In an absolutely astonishing move, the government of Aotearoa/New Zealand has decided to rush through emergency anti-trade union laws in order to appease the Warner Brothers movie studio, and keep the filming of ‘The Hobbit’ in New Zealand. In the words of opposition politicians, the country has been reduced to the “client state” of an entertainment corporation.
As we already reported, production of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ prequels was coming under attack from unions who were trying to negotiate collective contracts to guarantee the rights of actors working on the films. Given that the epic scale of Middle Earth films involves lots of extras, this really affects the livelihoods of many people.
However, the union has come under a vicious attack from the NZ right wing, unfortunately assisted by a bunch of dafties who thought parading round the streets of Wellington doing cosplay would help matters. Emboldened by this onslaught, Warner Brothers then took the opportunity to put the screws on the government.
Right wing broadcaster Paul Holmes (previously well known for calling Kofi Annan “a cheeky darkie”) wrote in a coloumn:
“Man, I’m angry. Angry that a group of gullible actors have allowed themselves to be used by some bolshie, left-wing filth from Australia…..what the whole disastrous affair shows is the unbelievable ego and rank selfishness of actors. What in God’s name were they thinking?”
His ranting also shows that a key element of the right’s campaign was whipping up nationalist, anti-Australian feeling, when many in the film industry work in both countries and it makes sense to co-operate – quite apart from which, all the unions involved were primarily NZ ones, with international solidarity from Australia. Never mind the fact that the national government has rolled over to a foreign (US) company’s demands, when it’s a big company that’s commercial reality, when it’s a union they’re greedy foreign bastards. Showing these double standards, Holmes wrote:
“And if it all has simply been a brilliant game by Warner Bros to garner greater tax breaks, they have played it brilliantly.”
So why is it ok for them, but not workers?
During the dispute, it was raised again and again what a disaster it would be for the country to lose filming of The Hobbit. It’s almost as if Aotearoa/NZ has become a banana republic, it’s entire economy dependent on one export. Except that export is films set in Middle Earth. Knowing how desperate the government was not to lose the project, Warner Brothers therefore took the opportunity to demand a big cash handout, as well as the union laws for the film industry being rewritten to their liking.
Local official responsible for running Warner Bros. colony: PM John Key
The Prime Minister, John Key of the NZ Tories (they’re called the National Party down there), led the surrender delegation negotiations personally. The deal he helped broker last week promised to just hand over $25 million (£11.8 million) of tax payers cash to the company, mostly in tax rebates.
But even more worryingly, they are now rushing legislation through parliament that will make it legal to force workers in the film industry to be employed as independent contractors rather than employees. That means they can be sacked with impunity and can’t sue for unfair dismissal, they can’t negotiate collective contracts and they can be forced to work without pay, as they will be paid a certain sum no matter how long a job takes.
This overturns a hard won legal right in the country that film workers could claim to be employees and sue for unfair dismissal because of the conditions they work under.
‘The Hobbit’ row has been one of the most prominent labour disputes in Aotearoa/New Zealand for years. The fact that it’s come to such a terrible conclusion shows how necessary it is to hold your nerve when fighting with bosses. Warner Bros. knew what they wanted out of this situation – money and power, and they were prepared to act as stone cold extortionists to get it. To hold them back, they needed to take a stand, Helm’s Deep style.
They had made a completely reasonable demand that film makers meet with them, which, when refused, led them to call a worker’s boycott of the film. But, under the intense pressure exerted by the right, they caved, and gave an assurance there would be no industrial action on a film that hadn’t even begun filming yet (how could they know what issues might come up?) At this point the bosses smelled manflesh blood, and went for the jugular, taking brutal concessions from the compliant Tory government. The unions should have stood firm, but in a climate of massive unemployment in NZ it’s easy to understand how they collapsed. What should have been an opportunity to advance the rights of all film workers in the country on the back of a very prominent movie became the opposite.
Robyn Malcolm in LOTR
A special mention should be reserved for one figure in the saga, popular NZ actor Robyn Malcolm. She’s been in loads of stuff down there, and was also Morwen in ‘The Two Towers’. She came under personal attack for her determined support of the struggle, but her response speaks on behalf of all the less famous actors struggling to try and get a living out corporate movie studios in the country:
“I really believe in this stuff. I believe in workers’ rights. I could choose not to care. I could just very quietly not rock the boat. I am a working solo mother of two boys and I don’t have a job. Outrageous Fortune has finished. I am looking for work. Would I really, in the words of Cheryl West, want to root my own industry?”
Bonus: Check out veteran NZ actor and former Hobbit Ian Mune defending the workers: