Friday, May 07, 2010

Ethics and Law

A little while ago I got an unhappy phone call from a board artist who's been with one of our fine animation studios for six years. He's concerned about getting laid off:

"I've been with my show longer than most of the other storyboarders. The directors are happy with my work, but management isn't too happy with me. I'm usually a couple of days behind schedule. I'm mouthy. And now I've got the feeling they're not going to hire me back next season. What I want to know is, don't they have any kind of obligation to keep me on next season? ..."

I told him, "No, they don't."

Here's the problem: Artists being artists, they confuse ethics with legalities. Many of them think that there is some code of good corporate behavior floating out in the ether and that Time-Warner or the Disney Company, Viacom or News Corp. are honor-bound to follow it.

I'm here to tell you that no, they're not. For a couple of reasons:

1) There is minimal honor among multi-national conglomerates (just pick up a paper).

2) Unless there is a law or contract rule in place, there is nothing to prevent a company's bad behavior when that company gets a notion to behave badly.

I explained to the board artist that the only rule I could think of that even marginally protected him was the seniority clause in the Animation Guild's contract, but that the paragraph about seniority rights had been gutted pretty thoroughly in the 1980s and was now a shadow of its former self. Where once it had been reasonably strong, now it contained a paragraph that was mostly toothless. This is how it reads:

"In hiring, layoffs and recalls, the prinicple of seniority shall apply as set forth below, except that, where the merit and ability of one individual is, in the sole discretion of the producer, superior to that of another individual, Producer's judgement shall prevail unless the Union can demonstrate that the Producer did not reach its decision fairly and equitably and without illegal discrimination of any kind ...

Slicing through the legal verbiage, the above says that the Producer pretty much gets to decide who it keeps and who it lays off. (I know this to be true because when we've filed grievances under this clause the arbitrator invariably says: "The way I read this, the company gets to let people go pretty much as it sees fit. Because that's what the language says. So you lose.")

Of course, there's the larger question about whether this kind of behavior is ethical. I would say, resoundingly, that it's not. But ethics aren't enforceable in a contract arbitration or court of law. Ethics are something that your Mom and Dad teach you, that you learn in your place of worship, that you follow (hopefully) in the quiet sanctity of your home.

Ethics are not, in my experience, something that corporations pay much attention to. Companies exist to make money. Period. You want morality and/or empathy, go spend a long weekend with Grandma.

Because multi-nationals are not your grandparents and will not give you those things, now or ever. (The board artist was not happy when I told him this.)


Anonymous said...

A slow, mouthy artist is wondering why he might be let go? Seriously?

Anonymous said...

Six years, Dude. All those years his job performance was within acceptable margins. Suddenly, it's a problem?

Anonymous said...

Two sides to every story, and everyone tries to cast themselves in the best possible light. Bottom line is this guy is making a case for continued employment based on longevity, not job performance. You want to work with someone like that?

Anonymous said...

Sad that the individual feels that his timeliness, language & attitude have little to do with how he contributes to the workplace.

Also sad that an individual in charge of making sure employees are treated fairly, doesn't think that ethics apply to the workplace.

Morality- to each his own
Ethics- It's about common courtesy living with other human beings.

Anonymous said...

Seniority in the 839 hasn't mattered since the early 1980's.

Steve Hulett said...

Correct. The language was changed a quarter-century ago.

Anonymous said...

Let us inquire what it was changed from, and what we can change it into....

Anonymous said...

I agree with Annon 1:36pm and 9:35pm.

Yes, Steve, what was the original language in the Seniority Clause? I too, would like to know.

Alishea said...

after reading this, I'm a little confused. Why is there a union then? What do animation unions do? (it's not that I'm attacking your job, i'm just not informed yet.)

Kevin Koch said...

Seniority clauses are but one small part of what a union potentially offers. Industries where seniority clauses were extremely strong (i.e., promotions were solely based upon seniority, and hiring outside the union roster nonexistent) have tended to steadily degrade over time, and haven't been able to respond to changing market conditions. One could argue that TAG's relatively weak seniority clause, while it may not be advantageous for a given individual, is necessary for the continued vitality of the union workforce.

So why is there a union then? A Defined Benefit Plan pension. An Individual Account pension. A 401(k). Salary minimums. Overtime protections. Worker retraining. Contract enforcement. Portable high-end health benefits. Job listings. Wage surveys. Workplace protections. A formal grievance mechanism. And whatever the combined membership chooses it to be.

Anonymous said...

'One could argue that TAG's relatively weak seniority clause,is necessary for the continued vitality of the union workforce.' So they can let you exsist. This is an admittance that you cant exsist without them letting you. Therefore, what it has been reduced to, what the union has let it allowed to become reduced to, is value-less. What can be done to return it to its original state. Most people working in this industry are skilled workforce as opposed to the artists that the studios claim they are glorified as. It is understandable that the studios need to be open to the world for artists that make the pictures what they hope them to be, but most people in outlieing departments are assistants to the artists, and do not need to be replaced as artists are who dont pan out for the studio. The weak clause encompasses everyone, as opposed to just the artists the studios need to protect themselves from. The clause doesnt need to encompass everyone. Nobody is going to take the job of the star artists, Frank Thomas (albiet dec., no disrespect intended) or any other living artist like what he was. But we dont need department purges to bring in new individuals when not only does experience count, but they really aren't art-jobs that are creative to the point of what the star artists are to produce. Duh.

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