Monday, October 30, 2006

Fulcrum Power (Or...Having Leverage)

Recently,TAG has been working to organize some smaller non-signator studios. The drill is, you collect the representation cards from interested artists, and when you have enough, you phone one of the managers at the company, askinghim if he wants to sit down and negotiate a contract before you fill out the National Labor Relations Board paperwork to get a union election that will FORCE them to negotiate (I won't hold you in suspense. The answer is usually "no"). So you go to the NLRB with your rep cards and petition, and let the National Labor Relations Act of 1938 (as amended) take its course.

The manager I called on this particular day wasn't thrilled with his folks wanting to unionize. "I told them these were non-union jobs when I hired them," he said to me. "How could they stab me in the back this way?!"

I rejoined that nobody, least of all him, was getting "stabbed in the back," that employees had a right to organize for better pay and benefits, and that it was a simple mathmatical equation. "Your people want to be paid TAG's minimum wage rates," I said. "And they want health benefits."

He wasn't mollified, but the Animation Guild has pressed on. I've no idea how this particular organizational drive will come out. Artists have reported to me that there have been the usual elliptical threats about "maybe having to close down," if the staff votes to "go union," and how the company is running on a shoe-string, etcetera, etcetera. (I've heard this song-and-dance something around 325 times. The tune varies but the lyrics stay the same.)

Despite the shoe-string alibi, I'm willing to be that the people at the top of this particular low-budget pyramid are not underpaid. They never are. As Variety's Peter Bart points out in his latest column:

"...Giant corporations now run all the major studios and networks. Hence, a company like Viacom can decide that a Tom Cruise makes too much money from his studio deal, then it turns around and pays a Cruise-like deal to a top executive, who isn't even a star...Of course, CEOs today live like stars in terms of power and perks -- Barry Diller got by on a mere $295 million last year. And they also decide how the rest of us will live...

"...All of which raises the interesting question: Who creates the criteria for corporate belt-tightening? What determines that profit margins must be improved and hence, heads must roll?

"The answer, of course, is that the CEO superstar invents his own criteria..."

In our corporatist age, leverage is everything, and corporate CEOs own the fulcrums and steel bars to move the blocks of gold bullion into their numbered bank accounts. Four years ago, a Disney company lawyer griped to me how Michael Eisner and Robert Iger had gone to the Disney board, each asking for eight million dollars of bonus money -- this in a year when Disney stock had not only languished but lost ground. "And the board gave it to them!"

"What reasons did Eisner and Iger give for deserving the bonuses?" I asked.

"They said they needed the money."

So there it is, ladies and gents. When you've got the leverage (i.e., you've appointed all the directors you are now asking to give you the money), you get what you want. And when you don't?

Well, you go to the National Labor Relations Board and hope for the best.


Anonymous said...

I thought that if a studio proclaims to any artist that going union would be cause to shut down,it's considered intimidation, which is, in turn actionable, no?

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know how ANY manager could claim with a straight face that their artists are "stabbing" THEM in the back by unionizing(or trying to)...what--so the guy, who I'd guess isn't the owner/CEO/head of the animation house in question, but simply another employee(albeit one "in charge") thinks that various experienced animation artists somehow OWE him--loyalty? Fealty? Kickbacks? Birthday presents? Their unending, nquestioning GRATITUDE for a JOB? A vow to never try for health insurance? Pardon me, but WTF? If it WERE his company, it STILL wouldn't hold water; it'd be ludicrous. But if the fellow Steve talks with is merely a manager, well, it's beyond ludicrous. It's moronic.

Either that, or the guy is incredibly young and/or inexperienced and thinks it's all "personal", not business, and that the staff's reason for living and working is to make him(the manager)look good, or else. Brother.

Steve Hulett said...

Federal law says a company rep canNOT say to employees: "If you vote to go union, we'll close the place."

But it's okay to say: "Gee, we sure hope will be able to keep the doors open if we're forced to go union..."

Minimal difference, eh? However, the second is permitted, and the first isn't. Both, of course, are intimidation.

As to the manager, he was good at whining and sucking all the oxygen out of our conversation. I ended up listening politely and then saying I disagreed. Doing anything else would have been semi-pointless.

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