Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Uncomped

The subject of "working for free" came up at the Brew a couple of days ago. Amid posted about the contract ratification vote at Nickelodeon Cartoon Studios. That triggered some back-and-forth whether the CG crew "going union" was actually a good thing of not. And commenter "coolzone" wrote:

... [H]ealth benefits are fine and all, but a union should do more than just manage health benefits for it's members.

Steve ignored the problems of BLACKLISTING addressed last meeting. blacking listing (sic) that happens when artists don't do free over time and don't hit unrealistic deadlines. We all the know the game. In fact people admitted at the meeting that blacklisting in does fact happen. So the grievance system is broken, because while you can file a grievance that doesn't mean it you will not have serious negative consequences. ...

Let me clear up a few things about the above. There is no blacklisting in the way it's used above. Studios don't go around fingering artists and telling other studios not to hire them. Studios are fanatical about doing nothing more than confirming an employee's job status. They don't want lawsuits.

What most employees believe is that if they ask for an hour of authorized overtime, they won't be called back at the end of the season. ...

Here's the reality inside L.A. cartoon studios, both union and non-union:

1) Studios want to get the most done for the least possible money.

2) Employees want to do a quality job for their employer, but they don't want to kill themselves.

3) Working conditions inside studios vary widely, influenced by

a) Demands and requirements of the show-runner/producer,

b) A show's budget

c) The cohesiveness of the crew, and its ability not to be bullied and/or intimidated.

I know artists who NEVER work unpaid o.t., who ALWAYS ask authorization to work o.t. (and get it), and don't brook intimidation. And also don't get laid off. There was an artist at Nick who pushed back whenever they were messed with, and the studio backed off every time. And (here's the good part) the artist was never once laid off in the five years I knew about those dynamics.

I also know artists who jump through whatever hoops they're confronted with, who work late nights and unpaid Saturdays, who take home work to keep up. (Sometimes they're new and a whole lot slower than everybody else. Sometimes they're overly demanding on themselves. And sometimes ... let's face it ... the schedule is unrealistic.)

Artists have trained themselves to assume they'll be cut loose if they don't hit the deadline (no matter how truncated it might be) without asking for paid "authorized" o.t. The assumption is based on their knowledge of somebody else asking for o.t. and then "not coming back for Season Two."

Sometimes this is true. Often it's not true. More often the artist was "let go" for other reasons.

So what does the guild do to counteract the paranoia? I tell artists I'm happy to talk to management about scheduling problems, overlong scripts, too many passes on the animatic, or whatever else it is. I tell artists I can file a grievance, or simply walk through a studio on a weekend or late evening and take down the names of people who are there working uncompensated overtime. I can be the bad guy.

I've said this before, but there are departments in studios right now who stick together and always get paid o.t. And there are artists in the same studio who work uncomped overtime reflexively. (This isn't new. At Disney features in the 1990s there were departments who were paid every nickel of the overtime they were owed, and other departments that did "free work." I had a department head who complained to me that the policing of the contract at Walt Disney Animation Studios caused management to put an end to the uncomped work ... which he thought had been great, and I was a schmuck for pushing the issue.)

In the end, uncomped o.t. proliferates when fear rules. It's kind of like Mark Twain's axiom:

"When a cat jumps on a hot stove, he never jumps on another one. But he never jumps on a cold stove, either."

There aren't as many hot stoves as people think, but there don't have to be. A few is more than enough.


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