Monday, February 15, 2010

The Organizing Thingamajig

A couple of months ago, out of the clear blue Western sky, we got a bunch of people coming in wanting to sign cards for their non-union studios. Here's why I think it happened:

* Most of the folks were working on shows owned by monster conglomerates, and were ticked off that the congloms were running the work through non-union studios.

* Most of the folks had were union members and had union health benefits, but the benefits were running out and they were faced with the skim milk offering of their non-union facilities.

* Most of the folks were getting slammed with uncompensated overtime because they were working for a flat salary. (Meaning that no matter how many hours in the week they worked, they get paid the salary and nothing more. There's no overtime in the deal.)

So here's what's happened since:

We've collected a bunch of representation cards from a variety of studios. At one place, we're coming right along.

At another studio, the crew we were collecting cards from has (mostly) been laid off.

At yet another studio, the campaign was chugging along smartly until management got wind of it, and the head honcho held a meeting for the staff and did a lot of hand-wringing about how "going union" would cost thousands more dollars per week and the big fat conglomerate wouldn't pay them more money and they just can't keep going under the weight of the horrid union yoke.

And so now the organizing drive is progressing somewhat less smartly. Artists have gotten rattled. Some have turned hostile to sweet old TAG ("Why is the union going after this place?"). some have just hunkered down, waiting for the storm to blow over.

Here's my take about getting non-union places to go union, based on my wee bit of experience:

1) Organizing is always tough, even under the best of conditions, (and in the current economic climate we're several country miles from good conditions.)

2) Management always says "We can't afford it," (Think about it a minute. You think its serves their purposes to announce: "Sure we could do it, but we'll have to lay out more cash, so we don't want to." That's usually the truth, but how would that go over? Not well, in most instances.)

3) Almost all the moolah to fund non-union shops comes from the same places the unionized money originates: News Corp, Disney Co., Time-Warner, Sony, Viacom, General Electric. There's also some European cash in the mix, but mostly the money gushes from the Big Six.

4) TAG ends up organizing the studios where it has enough leverage to get a contract, and the reverse. Sometimes this means it needs only a little leverage, sometimes this means it needs a lot.

Lastly. There is no "fair" or "unfair" here. There is only what Local 839 has the ability to get. (I was disabused of believing in the fair or unfair idea a long time ago. It's a popular concept, but it's mostly fatuous, because your idea of fair will seem totally unfair to somebody else.)

So here's what I tell individuals who think they're getting shortchanged with the non-union work:

"You're the one with the ability to change things. I can stand out on the sidewalk and help, and will if you really want me to, but you're the one that has to make the change happen. There are some risks, but they're not huge. And success is not necessarily assured, even if we get the cards and win an election. But if you act or don't act out of fear, you're stunting your own growth, because it's a crappy way to live.

"So sit down and think out what you want and need to do, then go for it. But whatever you do, try not to do it from a frightened place, because it will get to be a habit, and it will end up ruling you."

I'll report back here if anything important develops. And if not, not.


My 2 Cents said...

It's not just fear of management retribution that stifles organizing. It's more of the scarcity of work that has been deliberately created by our employers who have demonstrated at every possible opportunity that they are more than willing to make the work disappear altogether by sending it out of town or overseas. The theory being that the rank and file will settle for work on the producer's terms over no work at all. We had two strikes over this issue because we saw this tactic coming a mile away.

Yes, we need intestinal fortitude, but we also need legal support and leverage. It needs to be illegal for majors to evade their union contracts by "laundering" their work through non-union "boutique" studios. There has to be an air-tight tax penalty for sending the work out that removes the profit in it. The playing field is not level. Only the law can level it.

Anonymous said...

I'd second that...
Whats the official Union stance on studios like Dreamworks and Sony farming out work to smaller studios in Burbank and Texas, and overseas to cut rate studios in India etc?
All this is going to make a serious dent in the amount of Union artists hired in LA, and the wages they are being paid by the large studios.
Why pay a Local 839 animator scale, when they can farm it out to a boutique shop for less, or send it overseas for even less than less.
We have any kind of way to combat this, or put a tourniquet on it?

Anonymous said...

Farming work out around town or around the US and Canada has been going on forever. What has always kept it from really taking off is that it rarely turns out to be as cheap or effective as doing it in-house. Having spent countless hours in my career fixing garbage that was done by subcontractors, and having seen many studios and producers dive into outsource, only to pull back later, I know it's not the industry killer most of us think it is.

On the other hand, the more the union tries to mandate that outsourcing can't happen, the more some producers will be sure it's a panacea.

Anonymous said...

Why can't the union contract stipulate that at least any work done within a certain radius must be union. I believe this is what the SAG and AFTRA contracts say. It's shameful that we have so goshdarn little power that union shops can just farm work out or form a little branch that is non-union (skirt the law?) to avoid treating their employees with the respect owed hard-working professionals.

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