Friday, March 28, 2008

Employees Who Eat It

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.


Fabianv said...

Brilliant and insightful post. Thanks for giving me a good start to my day.

I agree with everything that you said, an artist must know their rights! You always see the inexperienced studios doing this.. back when I was in my home country I'd hear about this kind of thing all the time. There simply is no such thing as overtime pay in those places.

Justin said...

Last week I wanted to mention a higher profile case of money and leverage. The Boston Red Sox were scheduled to travel to Japan to play an opening season series against the Oakland A's. The players then learned that the coaching staff was going to get paid half of the stipend that the players were receiving. The players felt that this was unfair and threatened to boycott the trip unless the coaches received the same stipend that the players received. The players, management, and MLB all met and agreed to pay the coaches the same amount.

There is nothing in this story about fairness. The players (and now coaches) are each getting paid $40K on top of their normal salary and paid expenses to fly to Japan to do their job. This was about money and leverage. The players had all of the leverage. What were the Red Sox and MLB going to do if the players refused to travel to Japan? So the players got what they were demanding.

Anonymous said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again:

That old complaint from management that people shouldn't get OT because they "visit their buddies" all day is something I've heard at virtually every place I've worked. Here's the thing though:

In the main the animation community is like a prison culture-people know what's fair and they act accordingly. If it happens that someone goofs off to the extent that they have to stay late to make a deadline that person does "OT" quietly and doesn't ask for pay. Ditto people who don't come in on time. They usually stay later or come in on the weekends to make their deadlines. Not geat time use, but their problem.

I bring up the prison comparison because (while there are exceptions) people in this business keep tabs on their coworkers generally, and they know when someone is just making up time they needed for an assignment. They also know damn well when everyone's working hard for the full alloted time and STILL can't finish, because the deadline is unreasonable or the situation demands OT, which sadly happens a lot more often than it's offered as compensated, in TV especially.
This is when the BS comes up from resentful, EXEMPT management claiming that this guy or that one is "goofing off" all fricking day, and doesn't deserve a couple of hours of OT. This is when the staff should speak up.

Animation work is HARD; doing a job--much less doing it well--takes a lot of intensive hours of work. There's no way out of it. The ones who have a magical ability to whip it all out in a couple of hours on a Friday are few & far between if not myths. Most people are honest, and they also being both artists and human need to walk around, stretch their legs, and yes, talk and laugh with coworkers during the day. In short, we have all the healthy work requirements of a manager with an added million hours of hunching over a board as requirements to get our work done and have an ongoing career. Trust me, even if all people ever took were bathroom breaks and the union 30 minutes a day these dopes would still whine, pitch fits, threaten and complain about the lazy artists.

And yes, it is part of a manager's job to manage people. If things are so out of control it's their failure. Too often it's a lot more about sucking UPwards and ignoring DOWNward.

Dan Yu said...

I've been in the industry in Vancouver for about three years now and I still have lots to learn about it. Thanks for all your great posts!!

Steve Hulett said...

There is nothing in this story about fairness.

Fairness seldom has much to do with what people get. The BoSox had complete leverage in getting everybody the same per diem: If the coaching staff didn't get the same money the players did, the players weren't getting on the plane.


Now. Obviously management thought that the coaches getting less was fine, since less was what they started out paying them. But management (in this case) was smart enough not to complain about the players' maneuver.

There was zero chance management would prevail, so management kept quiet. Smart. Very smart.

Dan szilagyi said...

Thanks for the great post and i'm with you and everyone 100% i think its BS if a company uses blackmail or whatever means in order to get what they want:to pay you less for the work you do
the big and small companies keep pulling stuff like this on workers and pretty soon the whole industry will go down.

thanks again for the great insight

Anonymous said...

"Companies that make animators salaried employees (which violates Federal regulations that say "animators" are non-exempt -- meaning they have to receive overtime wages)."

If animators are non-exempt according to federal law then how do studios outside of CA just classifying them as exempt? I'm at a studio in TX that doesn't pay overtime to staff employees. I know California is the most labor-friendly state but if we're talking federal law then it should be the same across the board, right?

Nelson C. Woodstock said...

I thought Klasky-Csupo was still in business. I looked a few weeks ago and they seem to have new shows in the works.

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