Thursday, September 30, 2010

Actor Unions Continues to Hold Hobbit Hostage

Have you ever received that computer "anti-virus" virus that essentially infects your computer and then pops up a "warning" box saying you should buy their software to clean the machine? In essence they are creating a problem so can then extort money from you to fix it. More and more that seems to be what is occurring here with the Australian Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and the around 200 member New Zealand Equity with the support of USA’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG), UK’s Actors’ Equity, and elsewhere . The more details that come out, the more like that virus these unions are behaving as they try to take advantage of a big budget film to further their political (and financial) agenda.

While most of us has been trained by years of high school classes to believe that whatever a union wants is by default a good thing, that isn’t always true. It is something to keep in mind. Demanding answers and explanations from unions is not a bad thing. It’s a fundamental right they should actual encourage (but often don’t). The more information (or lack of really from the unions) that comes out about this whole thing seems fundamentally wrong. A recent example comes from TheOneRing which reports that Sir Peter Jackson offered to go to a MEAA/NZ Equity meeting being held yesterday and was turned down.

Ironically the meeting in Wellington involved 60 actors that couldn't reach an agreement on the next course of action to take in the dispute. Meanwhile a similar meeting in Auckland passed a resolution to "seek a meeting and negotiations with The Hobbit producers. According to NZ Actors Equity president Jennifer Ward-Lealand a "significant number" voted for the resolutions but "a number of performers represented alternative views and we have a duty to take their opinion into consideration". Sadly no one asked what a "significant number" meant compared to the 4000 or so total actors in the country.

A primary issue at work here is New Zealand law. Jennifer Ward-Lealand, President of NZ Equity, has admitted that the MEAA’s demands to enter into collective bargaining are illegal by the country’s Commerce Law. This means that even if Jackson and the studios are ready to fold to the unspecific union demands, the law prevents them from doing so. How does the union propose getting around this? Do they even have a solution or even aware of the conflict with federal law?

Another issue is how can a union that some reports indicate only represent around .05% of the total actors in the country claim to be serving the best interests of the entire actor community. Typically if a production is union-negotiated contract that means only unionized members can be hired. In effect, if Peter Jackson and the studio were to somehow meet their demands, suddenly 99.05% of the actor workforce in the country would not be allowed to join the Hobbit until they joined EZ Equity by paying the required dues. That strikes me as a clear conflict of interest that makes it undisputable that this boycott is motivated by a greedy power grab, not altruistic concerns. Requiring a "unionized" production isn't really necessary as long as the desired demands are in the contracts the actors sign. However, if did that why would an actor join MEAA/NZ Equity? If the goal was truly protecting the actors, there are many avenues to accomplish that without a formalized union (and forcing production to break the law).

The third issue is the lack of specifics on actor conditions they claim to be trying to correct. MEAA/NZ Equity are claiming that The Hobbit production specifically is underpaying actors and do not provide the same working conditions as overseas peers. However, they have not provided examples, just vague concerns based on other productions. The lack of specifics about The Hobbit and its treatment of actors may be due to the problem that their concerns are in the hypothetical since the movie has not even begun filming. They are literally claiming they are protecting New Zealand actors from conditions that do not yet exist. Like the virus, they have creating a problem then claiming to be the solution.

The fourth issue is the MEAA/NZ Equity fails to explain why they should be trusted. They initiate a boycott without bother to verify if federal law allows the production to meet their core demand. They claim to be protecting New Zealand actors from hypothetical conditions that do not yet exit while only truly representing a very tiny minority (.05%), and they have initiated actions that have the potential to cost New Zealand and its citizens hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue along with thousands of jobs for actors and non-actors. They even failed to disclose that they are not a legal union. According to Peter Jackson, "This situation is bordering on farce because The Hobbit has been falsely accused of being a “non-union” production – by NZ Equity, who themselves have been struck off the register of Incorporated Societies, having lost their union status." If anything, why is SAG and the UK, and Canada sister unions supporting this and why are their members letting them?

At this point, based on the information provided by Peter Jackson and comparing it with the complete lack of information from MEAA, NZ Equity, and SAG there is really only one conclusion to draw. The film is being held hostage with essentially legalized extortion. In this current economic environment, the financial impact on New Zealand should be deemed unacceptable. The country's working community, but especially the 99.05% of the actors this non-union does not represent need to speak up and speak up soon. In America, Canada, United Kingdom and Australia, actors should be demanding answers to these issues from their unions. They need to make it clear that wanting to increase union numbers at the expense of the very same actors they claim to be trying to protect is not an acceptable solution.

At the end of the day, .05% should not be able to dictate terms to 99.05% without their input and even a real union should not be allowed to extort a company to break the law, which is exactly what the MEAA, NZ Equity and SAG is currently doing with their boycott. If the goal is to protect actors, then do it. A union isn't a prerequisite to achieving that.


  1. Sadly some of our Australian "cousins" seem to make a habit of thinking/trying to play by Aussie rules when here in New Zealand. Some of them seem to have an in-built and unshakeable belief that the Aussie way is the only way to go and they pursue that belief with almost evangelical fervour on the basis that its their duty/right to bring enlightenment to poor, backward Aotearoa.
    And the oft repeated phrase "Yes, but in Australia we......" gets a little wearing on the ears.

  2. Hi, keep the good work on this blog, coming from the transformers blogs, regularly check this and start trek as well. I have just used your post to prove my point to some idiot saying this:

    "Then what you don't understand is how un-fairly they are being treated. They have to make a living too, but with no minimum terms or conditions and with hardly any pay how the hell are they supposed to do that? It's called respecting themselves as performers and as people, they're standing up for themselves. Every other union went through it before they got to where they are today.
    Now it's NZ's turn and this is the project that happens to be the turning point. This is about NZ actors asking to be treated fairly just like everyone else in the business. It's now or never to change the way this industry walks over them like dirt. NZ actors are the ones being bullied not the other way round."

  3. If Equity represents 0.05% of NZ Actors does that mean there is over 800,000 actors in Kiwi? Awesome!