Peter Jackson battles labor cartel to make 'The Hobbit'

It is the job that is never started that takes longest to finish. – J. R. R. Tolkein

Peter Jackson wants to make “The Hobbit” into a movie. Cool, no? Well, guess who’s standing in the way of such a worthy production? (Hint: Neither Sauron nor Saruman.)

Give up? It’s the unions.

Consider this bit of labor chicanery, reported here by The Wrap’s Josh Dickey:

The makers of feature film The Hobbit – to be shot in New Zealand next year – have refused to engage performers on union-negotiated agreements.

Members of Canadian Actors Equity, US Actors Equity, the Screen Actors Guild, UK Actors Equity, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (Australia) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists are advised not to accept work on this non-union production.

If you are contacted to be engaged on The Hobbit please notify your union immediately.

It appears some dwarves in the various actors’ guilds got hold of the ring.

Now, it’s against my principles to deny anyone a right to organize, or to exercise a right of free speech. But at least the United States, it is not in these rights that unions find their clout. It is rather through state power, which gives them undue leverage. (Otherwise, I might suggest some Misty Mountains in this part of the world as an alternative location.).

There are also economic reasons to find unions distasteful. Under what other market would we tolerate a cartel? None. And yet labor unions are nothing more than a means to price-fix the labor market–that is, to extract rents from consumers and those bearing the risks of a venture. It’s all a protectionist racket–a way to marginalize workers willing to compete. (Consumers, therefore, pay higher prices. Opportunities are denied those who don’t want to play ball with teamsters. And opportunity costs abound as union members wallets get fattened above prevailing wages.)

Of course, labor cartels are particularly bad for business during a recession.

So what will Peter Jackson do? Looks like he’ll fight back. Here’s Dickey again (quoting Peter Jackson):

The Australian Labour Union, the MEAA is using our production The Hobbit in an attempt to widen it’s membership, and power within the New Zealand film industry. As a New Zealand filmmaker, who has nothing to hide or be ashamed about, I’m not going to see this threatening behaviour continue without some form of sensible discussion about the “facts” and “truth” behind their various allegations.

Jackson goes on to lay out said facts, which appear to be a fairly naked union rent-seeking attempt. Then he closes with the following:

My personal opinion is that this is a grab for power. It does not represent a problem that needs a solution. There will always be differing opinions when it comes down to work and conditions, but I have always attempted to treat my actors and crew with fairness and respect. We have created a very favourable profit sharing pool for the non-Union actors on The Hobbit — and now the Union is targeting us, despite the fact that we have always respected SAG conditions and residuals.

I can’t see beyond the ugly spectre of an Australian bully-boy, using what he perceives as his weak Kiwi cousins to gain a foothold in this country’s film industry. They want greater membership, since they get to increase their bank balance.

It is unfortunate that organizations down under view Jackson as a target for their parasitism–particularly as Jackson has threatened to take the production to Eastern Europe.

Could filming The Hobbit in Eastern Europe be a good thing? There are lovely landscapes to be sure. There are also people there who have been happy to shed socialism and its variants — and to become more competitive and entrepreneurial world wide. So why not Eastern Europe? As much as Jackson would like to continue the tradition of developing the film industry in his home country, New Zealand, he will do well not to set a precedent by caving to the demands of rent-seekers.

Take it from a Yank who’s seen the results of union infiltration in various U.S. industries (auto, education, and airlines) — their influence must be kept in check.

Max Borders is a writer living in Austin, TX. Find his blogging here and at Ideas Matter.

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