So I walk into this studio a few days ago and a chunk of the crew starts griping:
"The production exec here had us all into his office and handed out employment contracts" ... "He said how things are going well and they wanted to offer new personal service agreements" ...
"And he said 'If these aren't signed by the end of the day,' you can clean out your desks and leave'" ... "We kinda got ticked." ... "I don't know if I can keep working here" ...
It's been a little while since I've heard the "my way or the highway" routine rolled out for use, but it (sigh) happens. Along with other things.
Here are some of my favorite corporate maneuvers over the years:
* Companies demanding that salaries be kept confidential (which violates law).
* Companies that make animators salaried employees (which violates Federal regulations that say "animators" are non-exempt -- meaning they have to receive overtime wages).
* Companies that argue "at will" personal service contracts (where an employee can depart at any time) are really "term" contracts (where an employee can't).
That companies misstate, intimidate and sometimes blackmail people who work for them is nothing new. Executives and employees alike have been caught up in a system where budgets and bottom-lines have huge influence and impact for, like, ever. But as we move deeper into the current corporatist age, abuses have gotten worse. Government regulations are ignored with increasing impunity, labor unions regarded with growing contempt.
When I entered the business, studios paid overtime rates of double and triple time and seldom batted an eyelash. Now the watchword is: "There's no budget for overtime" even though premium pay is computed at time-and-a-half and double-time, even though employees are performing o.t. weekday nights and weekends.
As a union rep, I've had execs tell me it didn't matter if they bent or broke the law as long as "nobody takes us to court." I've seen willful violations of state laws, federal laws, and union contracts.
There are, of course, reasons that are given for violating law. Years ago outside Klasky-Csupo -- where we were conducting an organizing campaign and threatening to sponsor lawsuits for unpaid o.t. -- an angry production manager confronted me on the sidewalk:
"These people you say we're not paying premiums to! They wander around the studio all day visiting their buddies!" We're not going to pay them overtime for that! So they have to stay 'til midnight and get their freaking work done! It's their problem!"
My argument that it was the exec's responsibility to manage wandering employees and make them work during business hours fell on deaf ears. Ultimately we had four employees sign onto a suit for nonpayment of o.t. Ultimately we settled for seven thousand dollars. We never got close to a union contract, and Klasky-Csupo was just as non-union the day it went out of business as the day it started.
So what can animation employees do to protect themselves in 2008? For one, it's imperative you know your rights, because if you don't know rules and laws are being breached, there's minimal chance you'll do anything about it.
Keep track of work-hours. Document conversations. Keep files of memos and e-mails that flow back and forth. You might not ever have cause to use them, but it's hard to predict the future. As a discharged animator told me:
"When the studio cut me loose in the middle of my show, I had a strong work record and could prove it. They offered to give me a few months of severance, I wanted double what they were offering. I was polite about it at first, but they kept saying 'no way.'
Finally I had a meeting with a senior exec and detailed the notes and documents I'd kept over the years (I'd been there a long time). Some of the stuff was pretty unflattering to corporate management.
The executive wasn't pleased about the material I had, but the company's attitude changed. In the end, we reached a money settlement I was a lot happier with. After the check had been cut, they told me I should have been nicer about the negotiations. I told them "Yeah, I tried that at first. It got me nowhere.'"
In today's America, it's about money and leverage (have I mentioned this fifteen times before?). If you have more of the second thing you'll get more of the first. I tell people new to the business: "You don't have a lot of power when you start, that comes with time, when the perceived value of your skill sets rise. Don't expect to drive a hard bargain when your leverage is weak."
And those disgruntled crew members up at the top of this post? They didn't like the verbal gun that was pointed at their heads by the supervisor, but after I explained the clauses of the contract being forced on them; most decided it wasn't as awful as they'd orignally thought.
But the attitude of management still irritated them, and therein lies a lesson: In the movie business, people skills are important, especially when dealing with talent needed to create viable product. Companies that don't acquire that skill -- and some never catch on -- tend to be in existence for shorter periods than companies that do.
Sooner or later, bad business practices -- whatever they are -- bring coeporations down. Even in a corporatist age.