ReadingRoom

“We are a little people” - Muldoon, Moscow and a writers’ union

A preview of the public lecture to be given at the National Library in Wellington this week by distinguished playwright Dean Parker.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon once made public his claim that New Zealand Writers’ Guild was among a select band of unions in New Zealand that were directed from Moscow. All very exciting and subversive, if it were true, but in fact the reason it was formed was because of a soap opera.

In 1975, writers were being hired to work on Close To Home, New Zealand’s first soap. It was production line work and we wanted standard rates of pay for our differing inputs.

Eventually we met the Broadcasting Council of to negotiate a collective contract. At our strategy meeting the night before, our president, playwright Bruce Mason, suggested a canny tactic which I’m surprised hasn’t been taken up by other unions. He told us how he’d recently been awarded an honorary doctorate from Waikato University. “If you all refer to me as Doctor,” he said, “we might hold them in our thrall.”

Well, it worked. The negotiations were a triumph for Doctor Mason and his team and we doubled the going rate for writing for TV and radio.

The negotiations took place on May 25, 1978, an auspicious date. At a break during the morning proceedings we heard the police and army had just moved against the land protest at Bastion Point. We sent off telegrams condemning the government and giving solidarity messages to the protesters.

The Writers’ Guild always maintained its own identity. We once had an emblem that consisted of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe dancing together in costume and each with their right arm replaced by the Federation of Labour’s hairy arm clenching its iron hammer.

The guild was affiliated to the Federation of Labour in 1978. Jim Knox, the legendary FOL president, asked just what these Writers’ Guild people did. He was told,  “They write.” He replied, of course, “Why don’t they join the Clerical Workers?”

The American Screenwriters Guild, too, was formed because writers were being hired in bulk by an employer. In Hollywood, the studios placed screenwriters in writers’ blocks where everyone could feel disgruntled collectively.

Samuel Goldwyn was reputed to sneak around to the writers’ block at MGM and crouch under the window, just in case one of the typewriters inside wasn’t clacking busily away.

Dorothy Parker once hurled herself at the window of the Paramount block and wailed to the world outside, “Please! Help us out of here! We’re sane, just like you!”

Everyone knows about the Academy Awards but few know what this Academy is. It’s an Academy of Motion Picture Artistes. It was set up by Hollywood studio heads in 1929 to pre-empt the formation of unions. So writers, actors, directors and designers were all grouped together into this family which would resolve any family issues, such as rates of pay. At a meeting to form a separate Hollywood Screenwriters’ Guild, some self-important scribbler stood and declared creative writers did not need a union. Dorothy Parker (it’s always Dorothy Parker, isn’t it?) called out, “If you’re a creative writer, I’m Queen Marie of fucking Romania.”

As well as parallels with the US writers union, the Writers Guild has a lot in common with Actors Equity.

Like Actors’ Equity, the Guild is an organisation of self-employed contractors not in a master-servant relationship. And like Actors’ Equity, we sought a collective agreement with film producers and found them wringing their hands and wailing that they’d love to, but their interpretation of the law was sadly that they couldn’t.

Of course Equity admirably took matters into their own hands in 2010 but at the end of the disgraceful year I found myself writing in my diary, “When the dust had settled on The Hobbit, Warner Brothers had subjugated a sovereign nation, extracted a hundred million dollars from its taxpayers’ pockets and all but destroyed the possibility that New Zealand film workers would have the freedom to be covered by a union like other workers.

"New Zealanders like to believe in giving everyone a fair go and not doffing the cap. But being a New Zealander means the exact opposite. It means loving to doff the cap. It means ganging up on anyone stepping out of line. It means being as obsequious as possible to the rich and powerful. It means the most tawdry display of brown-nosing you’re likely to see. We are a little people.”

Dean Parker will give the annual Rona Bailey Lecture at the National Library in Wellington on Thursday, October 17, at 5:30pm. Admission is free.

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