A little while ago I got an unhappy phone call from a board artist who's been with one of our fine animation studios for six years. He's concerned about getting laid off:
"I've been with my show longer than most of the other storyboarders. The directors are happy with my work, but management isn't too happy with me. I'm usually a couple of days behind schedule. I'm mouthy. And now I've got the feeling they're not going to hire me back next season. What I want to know is, don't they have any kind of obligation to keep me on next season? ..."
I told him, "No, they don't."
Here's the problem: Artists being artists, they confuse ethics with legalities. Many of them think that there is some code of good corporate behavior floating out in the ether and that Time-Warner or the Disney Company, Viacom or News Corp. are honor-bound to follow it.
I'm here to tell you that no, they're not. For a couple of reasons:
1) There is minimal honor among multi-national conglomerates (just pick up a paper).
2) Unless there is a law or contract rule in place, there is nothing to prevent a company's bad behavior when that company gets a notion to behave badly.
I explained to the board artist that the only rule I could think of that even marginally protected him was the seniority clause in the Animation Guild's contract, but that the paragraph about seniority rights had been gutted pretty thoroughly in the 1980s and was now a shadow of its former self. Where once it had been reasonably strong, now it contained a paragraph that was mostly toothless. This is how it reads:
"In hiring, layoffs and recalls, the prinicple of seniority shall apply as set forth below, except that, where the merit and ability of one individual is, in the sole discretion of the producer, superior to that of another individual, Producer's judgement shall prevail unless the Union can demonstrate that the Producer did not reach its decision fairly and equitably and without illegal discrimination of any kind ...
Slicing through the legal verbiage, the above says that the Producer pretty much gets to decide who it keeps and who it lays off. (I know this to be true because when we've filed grievances under this clause the arbitrator invariably says: "The way I read this, the company gets to let people go pretty much as it sees fit. Because that's what the language says. So you lose.")
Of course, there's the larger question about whether this kind of behavior is ethical. I would say, resoundingly, that it's not. But ethics aren't enforceable in a contract arbitration or court of law. Ethics are something that your Mom and Dad teach you, that you learn in your place of worship, that you follow (hopefully) in the quiet sanctity of your home.
Ethics are not, in my experience, something that corporations pay much attention to. Companies exist to make money. Period. You want morality and/or empathy, go spend a long weekend with Grandma.
Because multi-nationals are not your grandparents and will not give you those things, now or ever. (The board artist was not happy when I told him this.)