Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On Negotiations - Part I

Negotiations? Well, since I got asked...

The recent negotiations I wrote about below were typical and atypical at the same time. The typical part was the posturing and arguing. The atypical part was the (thus far) inconclusive results. But this is an organizing negotiation: talks to get a contract where none exited before...

But let's talk about negotiating in general.

Most every individual in the 'toon business negotiates. We negotiate salary, we negotiate working conditions, we negotiate the size and opulence of our work space. And how successful we are depends on a) how much leverage we've got, and b) the frame of mind of the people with whom we're negotiating.

But mostly a).

It's much the same thing with negotiations for collective bargaining agreements. And the people any union negotiator is up against -- salaried lawyers from the major corporations -- work diligently to convince said union that it doesn't have any leverage, that the union is only getting the deal it's getting out of the goodness of the company's heart. And isn't the union lucky that the company is so good and kind and benevolent?

That is usually the dynamic companies strive for. Occasionally union negotiators fall for it; more often they don't.

And before any labor-management negotiation culminates in a new contractual agreement, both sides go through the following kabuki theatre:

Each side presents their list of demands. For the union or guild, it's higher wages, more generous health and pension benefits, a larger slice of the residual pie. The union presents arguments of why this is a good thing for both parties, why it's just and right and truly American, why a benevolent God smiles on it.

And management presents its wish list: small bump-ups of minimum wages, rollbacks in health and pension, a new residual formula. The argument is always put forward that the company just can't afford the old deal anymore, that theatre receipts are down, television licensing fees are shrinking, production costs are breaking the corporate back.

In almost all cases, the companies are looking for "relief." And they tell you why it's the wise and even inevitable choice. And why the union should be "statesmanlike" and agree to it.

"Relief" and "statesmanlike" always means: "We pay you less money."

Fifty years ago, the playing field between management and labor was semi-level. Guilds and unions could not only hold their own against Warners, Disney, Universal and Fox, but they could get steady improvements in labor contracts. Now? Not so much. Now the movie studios are tiny cogs in monster conglomerates, and unions and guilds are fighting corporations as powerful and rapacious and giant squids.

Then as now, the success of unions and guilds at the negotiating table is tied directly to how much of the work force they control. If they control most or all of it, they can do okay. But if they rep only a small segment, they've got problems. Big problems.

In recent years, the IATSE, our parent union, has been lucky in this regard. It's managed to organize most of the movie and television grips, camera people, editors, makeup artists, set builders and the rest. With that strength, they negotiate pretty good contracts, especially when compared to the not-so-good contracts they were forced to agree to fifteen years ago when a lot more workers were "non union." One poignant example of this was triple-time getting reduced to double-time, and double-time getting reduced to time-and-a-half. It hurt then and it hurts thinking about it now.

Within the Animation Guild's small corner of the world (Southern California), labor contracts have gotten better over time -- mostly. This is because our local agreement is tied to the Basic Agreement of our Mother International, and as the Basic has improved, our Animation Guild contract has improved with it, particularly with better pension benefits. We've also gotten some boosts in certain job classifications, and that hasn't hurt either.

Achieving contractual improvements isn't always easy and often involves screaming, yelling and boisterous theatrics. I'll provide some examples tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

If the union really wanted to earn the adoration they claim to deserve they would really start negotiating hardball contracts like getting storyboard artists the same types of benefits and residuals that primetime writers get for their work.

Jeff Massie said...

Steve's followup post addresses this better than I could.

Steve Hulett said...

Dear anon:

It's not the union that wants anything. It's the people in the union who want...more pay...residuals...more vacation, etc.

As I state above, in '95 Tom Sito tried mightily to get people to strike...or threaten to strike...or something.

Nobody was willing to. And unless and until they're willing, no residuals will be forthcoming. (You'll note that the WGA has spent the last eighteen years trying to get better residuals. But it's been a difficult nut for them to crack.)

But for the record, I want board artists to have residuals, also board artists, also animators.

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