Monday, June 05, 2006


We've all got 'em, but it's the Animation Guild's job to file contractual grievances when a member tells us a studio has violated his contractual rights... Guild grievances proceed through a series of steps. The first step is TAG finding out about it. That happens a) when the business agent (yours truly) discovers what he believes to be a contract violation when he's strolling around a studio, or b) when a member calls and informs us a violation has occurred. Then comes a phone call from me to the studio, and they investigate the charge. And then we either come to some kind of settlement, or we write a formal grievance letter. After that comes an informal arbitration hearing (where we try to work things out) or binding arbitration (kind of like small claims court.) Mostly, grievances get launched from platform b) above, rather than a). But walk-through grievances do happen. Like the time I walked through an animation studio on a Saturday morning and came across a member working without benefit of overtime pay. Three minutes later, the producer of the show came strolling down the hall decked out in satin gym warmups, and I pointed the unpaid employee out to him: "See the animator over there? He tells me he's not getting paid for the Saturday work. " The producer stammered that he had no idea anybody was even there. Ever helpful, I pointed to the lamp glowing above his cubicle. "See the light? That's kind of a tip-off about somebody being here." The producer frowned and steamed into his office without further comment. Happily, we got the employee reimbursed for overtime, no hearings needed. And why was I there that particular Saturday? Because the employee had tipped me off. He was days away from lay-off at the end of the project, and he'd decided it was safe to call the guild. (Nothing to lose, you know?) But the free overtime had been going on for awhile. Most grievances revolve around pay issues or dismissal issues. Somebody thinks they're not getting paid the right amount, they call. Somebody gets terminated, they call. A few years back, the background supervisor on a feature at a well-known studio was in a meeting with the brand-new studio head. The studio head said he didn't like the shadows in some of the background supervisor's color studies. The art director asked if he could explain why he made the small paintings so dark. The studio head nodded "okay," and the supervisor explained. The studio chief grunted, then exited. And the following morning, the supervisor was taken into a production manager's office and summarily fired. He was told the studio head was "angry" about the meeting, so thank you and goodbye. (Much to the b.g. supervisor's surprise. Everyone I talked to who'd been there said the supervisor had been soft-spoken and polite throughout.) So TAG filed a grievance for wrongful discharge. In this case, the Guild was fortunate that the studio forgot or ignored the contractual requirement to "write up" the employee first, detailing the problem and giving the employee a chance to correct whatever the issue was before heaving said employee out onto the sidewalk. Because the company didn't do this, TAG was able to get the individual a sizable chunk of money. Over the years, we have filed grievances over credits, over abuse, over seniority. Many we've won and quite a number we've lost. I've learned that when you get into a full-blown arbitration, the decision can go either way, and sometimes it surprises you. The one you think is going to be tough you win going away; the one you believe to be a slam-dunk turns out to be a loser. There was a grievance arbitration we lost because we couldn't prove that a supervisor's termination was a result of the supervisor filing a police report for assault against a young employee who was a favorite of the director-producer. (The employee had dumped a 20-ounce cup of paint over the supervisor's head.) We found out later that our assumption had been correct; we just couldn't PROVE it in the arbitration hearing. Then there are those grievances we DON'T want to file, but the member is insistent and, keeping in mind that the Guild has a legal obligation to represent people who believe they have been wronged, we gird our loins and fight the good fight. (I once got chewed out by a DreamWorks attorney for defending an employee they were firing; I pointed out that I had a legal obligation to rep the person. Oh yeah. That one we lost. Resoundingly. But it's better to represent even a hopeless case than get sued for non-representation.) A final point: Most grievances never get to the arbitration stage. Many times, resolutions are achieved over lunch or over the phone. Matter of fact, that's how most of them end up.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. It's nice to know how this stuff works.

Anonymous said...

What's the statute of limitations for a grievance? A few years ago I had a case where the employer wrote in a contract to pay me for directing my own pilot. Instead they decided to hire someone to direct all their pilots that year forgetting about my contract. They told me I could not direct it. Wehn I complained they threatened my job and told me I could either do my pilot or work there. But I could not do both even though it was originally the deal. Eventually they paid me half of the sum. Am I still entitled to the other half or is it over?

Kevin Koch said...

There is no statute of limitations per se. It can't hurt to give Steve a call and kick it around with him to see if you have any options.

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