Thursday, February 24, 2011

Still More "Work for Free!"

To beat on this bass drum yet again, I present to you a recent e-mail exchange between a veteran board artist and me. I've made redactions in order to keep the waters calm.

Hey Steve,

Didn't really have time to get into it [last week], but we are indeed having a lot of storyboard artists on **** doing lots and lots of unpaid overtime (I worked from home yesterday on my board, for instance).

6 board artists- including myself- met with [our supervisor] about this, and though he seems to be sincere in his effort to begin curbing the endless script rewrites and animatic corrections, paid overtime and/or reasonable deadlines are completely off the table. I now just try to do all I possibly can in 40-45 hrs. and say 'f*ck it' if the show isn't done on time. Of course, that makes me look terribly bad to my director.

I hesitate to mention this for all the usual reasons: fear of being blacklisted, fired, this is the norm for most board artists, etc. Also, we are approaching the end of the season. ... But I thought I'd seek your advice on what should be done- if anything. The only advantage [our show's] board artists seem to have at the moment is solidarity-- we back each other up anytime someone goes to management.

Anyway, just wanted to get your thoughts. Regardless, I am a regular lurker on the TAG Blog and truly appreciate and admire all you do for artists in this town. ...

What this artist writes about is pretty typical regarding what often goes down at various L.A. studios -- both union and non-union. But it's also true that in a single facility, one show can be a hell-hole while the series down the hall is comparatively stress free and the schedules sane. Here's my reply ...

Your experience isn't unusual. Every studio has some of this; it varies from show to show. (I met with one crew a couple years back. They were screaming about the scheduling and unpaid overtime. I went to the producer -- who complained about the budget constraints -- and some minor adjustments were made, but it was still a problem. [Blank] is considered a major hell-hole by many; [Double Blank] not so much. The difference is the show runners and production managers.)

The "work for free" problem has been around since the day I started this job. A production manager was pressuring the layout crew to work free o.t. on "Tiny Toons" in freaking 1990. Glenn Vilppu, now an art teacher for TAG and others, refused to do unpaid o.t., the younger guys knuckled under.

(Glenn stayed on by the way. He's low-key and amiable, but he tends not to take shit. He once worked for an art school that stiffed every teacher but him. They tried it on him once, and he told them he would need a cashiers check every time he stepped through their door. They complied because they needed him and figured out they couldn't screw with him. Everybody else went on getting stiffed, with some people not getting paid for over a YEAR. The owner-operator of the school was a snake with a gift of gab. He TALKED artist-teachers into working for free. "My ex-wife's suing me, I'm short this week, wish I had the money, it'll be here next week for sure.." and so on.)

Re your situation, I always tell people that I can do a variety of things with work problems: I can come in late at night or on weekends and catch people working, then file a grievance. (I'm the bad guy in this scenario.) I can go and complain to H.R. I can go to [the Big Kahuna]. ... Mostly what I hear is "There's unreasonable amounts of unpaid o.t., the union has gotta do something about this but don't use my name if you make a complaint or file a grievance," etc. Meantime the union is weak, don't you know?)

I'm willing to do anything you guys want, everything from nothing, to coming in and monitoring the late-work, going to management and raising a stink, you name it. Mostly everybody is frightened of losing their jobs and so they're hunkered down holding on and don't make waves. The problem artists make for themselves is that they falsify time cards, work extra hours for free, and then studios start expecting it. My realistic suggestion would be what you hinted at: Everybody should figure out how to work fast and efficient and cut whatever corners can be cut. Negotiate with supervisors. See if everybody can hang together. In my experience, the fear of discharge is always exaggerated, but artists know SOMEBODY might get laid off for pushing back, so they don't push back.

Happy to take you and the rest of the crew to lunch to kick ideas around about how to make things better. Let me know if people are up for it. Lunch will be my treat. ...

One note re the above: When I say, "... work fast and efficient ...," I don't mean to come off like some constipated production manager. What I mean is, people sometimes need to find shortcuts and make artistic compromises to keep up with the work load, otherwise they're going to be sitting at their computer screen until midnight. There is, of course, another solution: put down on the time card all hours worked.

And I'll restate (one last time) another problem attached to the first. If management gets sixty hours of work for forty hours of pay, they will tend to keep raising the bar until it's eighty.


Anonymous said...

Clearly, a show that routinely experiences extensive rewrites should budget for it, especially a successful show that can well afford it. Another thing they can do is use quick, rough "scratch" or thumbnail boards until the story issues are are flattened, then "lock" it.

The layoff threat is real. Some of these shows are like revolving doors with artists being thrown out and then replaced. The talent pool is that large. We are not all Vilppu's, with that kind of leverage.

I am, personally, convinced that companies are deliberately under-budgeting and under-hiring to force down wages.

There has to be a tax penalty for sending our jobs away. That will thin out the available talent pool, (with more of us employed and unavailable), and give us more leverage.

John said...

Having heard complaints like this multiple times over many years, I think the best solution is for you become an OT policeman.

No, it's probably not what you really want to do.

But imagine what would happen if you announced to management that you would be stepping up your random OT surprise visits, and then comparing your visits with timecard hours. Both on weeknights and on weekends.

And then do it.

Make yourself a nearly constant presence around the "known offender" shows. Two to four nights a week. Even if you only had to do this for a month or two, they would get the message very quickly.

A last suggestion: perhaps the crew could set up a "code word" or phrase to let you know there is unpaid OT going on. Further, is there a way to have their testimony under sealed affidavit, so the arbitor, but not their employer, would know their names, to prevent retaliation/blackballing?

Floyd Norman said...

A union "policeman" is not the answer to the problem because the big boys are not easily intimidated.

It's a high risk game, and the bad guys already know they have all the leverage. It's a very sad situation.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve Hulett said...

A union "policeman" is not the answer to the problem because the big boys are not easily intimidated.

I've done the o.t. policeman thing in the past; here's how it works.

Sometimes it's effective.

And other times the employer has said (when I filed the grievance): "Fine. We'll pay the o.t., and the next time this person works late without getting authorization, and you catch him or her, they are fired." (Told to me by Disney TVA some time back, in case you're interested.)

Makes for an interesting dynamic, no?

Steve Hulett said...

Let me add: I have been through studios late at night, and when employees confirm that they are working unpaid overtime, well and good.

And when employees say they are not working unpaid o.t., I have to take them at their word.

Lastly. Checking time cards is a good idea, and if there were time clocks where people punched in and out, there would be an accurate record to check. But when employees fill out "8 hours" and sign it, the only way to monitor is to sit in the studio all day and see what's up.

Lastly lastly: I've been going to studios weekends with mixed results. Nevertheless I'll keep at it.

Anonymous said...

Didn't anybody notice that the board artist said he/she worked at home ovet Christmas?

How is Hulett supposed to police that? Anybody?

Steve Hulett said...

is there a way to have their testimony under sealed affidavit, so the arbitor, but not their employer, would know their names, to prevent retaliation/ blackballing?


The union's remedy is filing a grievance, and the grievance has to have a name.

Anonymous said...

But where is that line between simply being to slow, and being asked to carry a workload that is unreasonable for the time allotted?

Anonymous said...

Certainly by Season 22, Homer's head, hands, body, arms, and legs - and those of the entire cast - can be computer generated from previous episodes by now. Entire episodes can be generated from library by now.

If they are stupid enough to want to redraw it yet again, just take your time....

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:28... in the example given, I'd say that when 6 of the story artists on a single show are in agreement, and that the artist cities an unusually high amount of script rewrites and revisions, that the distinction in this case is fairly clear.

John said...

Makes for an interesting dynamic, no?

You have a bully pulpit that is read by most in the industry.

If management threatens to retaliate in such a fashion, you need only tell them that you will air this dirty laundry, naming names, on your popular blog. You will inform the rest of the industry what kind of practices this show, and its producers, are engaging in. And you might also go to the media as well.

You have more power than you realize. You need only threaten to use it, to be effective.

In the face of these continued, and obvious, complaints of OT abuse, I urge you to become more aggressive with studio management about it. As the Wisconsin Democrats are showing, a bit of pushback and fight goes a long way.

Anonymous said...

Couldnt agree more with ANon 8:48. In this brave new world of social media, individual grievances have the ability to merit national attention.

:O said...

Aww man, I bet some of these comments are going to get attributed to me....

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:48 nailed it. ABSOF*CKING LUTELY.

Anonymous said...

The power comes from the people in the union, not the union itself. If we as a group aren't willing to file grievances or stop working unpaid OT, there isn't much the union reps can do. we are only undermining ourselves (and others.) We are the union. A company isn't going to stop doing things because it's immoral or illegal. The company as an entity exists for profits. They won't stop until there is a suit against them, or we as artists stand together.

Floyd Norman said...

The corporations have the money and they make the rules. They run the game because it's their game.

The great Bill Tytla went on strike against Disney. Boy, did he show them. He never worked at Disney again even though he was regarded by all as a Master.

Think you can beat the guys who runs the game?

John said...

I agree to a point, but I also think this has become an excuse for inaction for things the union rep can do.

Stepped-up aggressiveness and increased presence during OT hours are things Steve can do, and should do. He even admitted that when he has done so in the past, it has yielded results.

Companies absolutely do respond to public embarrassment, and negative publicity. They hate sunshine illuminating their unethical practices. An effective tactic that CAN be used is to publicly air their dirty laundry. Since Steve has a well-read bully pulpit here, and also has a bit of public credibility, I think you'd be surprised how effective this tactic could be.

Note to ALL animation professionals: this is something we can ALL do in the comments section of this blog. If a show is applying too much pressure, and expecting way too much work for 40 hours pay (refusing to pay OT), NAME the show here. NAME the producer. NAME those applying the pressure. And do so anonymously.

And then encourage Steve to devote a blog post exclusively about the offenders.

John said...

I was responding to Anon 12:41.

As for you, Floyd--they obviously DID "beat the guys who ran the game". They won the strike, and Disney became part of the union. Still is today.

Steve Hulett said...

What I would like people under our jurisdiction to do:

If you and others are working unpaid o.t. at night or weekends, let me know about it beforehand and I will get over there.

I've done this in the past and it's worked pretty well. And it beats showing up someplace randomly and having all the cubes empty.

So are we clear? Lemme know. Tip me off. I'll come running.

Floyd Norman said...

You are correct, but a price was still extracted by that win. The Disney studio was never the same. I honestly don't think the bitterness ever went away. I spoke with Disney employees on both sides of the strike and both said it was devastating.

However, the game hasn't really changed. Disney owned Pixar remains non-union, and the mouse is about to open another studio in the Bay Area.

Apparently, the "Good Guys" are still not winning.

Anonymous said...

Depends entirely which prism you choose to look through.

The fact there was "bitterness" after the fact is irrelevant. That's to be expected in any worthwhile fight.

The fact is, the strikers won. Their efforts continue to win today, in the form of a unionized studio. And the "big guys" lost.

The "Good Guys" can continue to win big fights today, if they only willing to endure the silly "bitterness" nonsense.

Anonymous said...

You are correct, but a price was still extracted by that win. The Disney studio was never the same. I honestly don't think the bitterness ever went away.

Oh my. I'm getting tears all over my higher paycheck and health insurance card.

Floyd Norman said...

Love your sarcasm, Anonymous.

Clearly, we mades remarkable gains even though a price was paid. I just wish labor and management could have a better relationship instead of the continued hostility.

Anonymous said...

"Entire episodes can be generated from library by now."

( For BG elements, yes. )

If you like McFarlane's style of animation, with its twinning arms and robotic headbobs, sure! /sarcasm

Anonymous said...

**The fact there was "bitterness" after the fact is irrelevant. That's to be expected in any worthwhile fight.

The fact is, the strikers won. Their efforts continue to win today, in the form of a unionized studio. And the "big guys" lost.**

The fact IS that the "little guys" went on strike against a company that treated them far far better than any other animation studio at that time. Gee, I wish I had a job where the commissary charged you food at COST, where there were amusements like a volleyball court and ping pong, and waiters that would bring your food to you. I have NEVER had a job with amenities like that. Walt treated his employees (initially) like family, with a paternalism that bugged some people, that's true. But the strike destroyed the relationship between Walt and his employees (because Walt took it a bit too personally, true, but being called an abusive slave-driver when that was hardly true would bug anybody). And THAT'S what Floyd was referring to, I believe. The initial come-together-well-met atmosphere of the Disney studio never fully returned. Unions can be beneficial, but they can also be oppressive, overbearing and ruinously expensive, and it's that persona that many people today, right now, in this country, are upset with.

Anonymous said...

The last poster is completely full of sh*t. The Disney crew was promised big things once Snow White was completed, and it didn't happen. After working for years for paltry salaries and often doing unpaid overtime, and being promised that as soon as the studio had some success it would all improve, the crew stopped believing Walt. Most of the crew was paid so badly they couldn't support a family (the top artists were paid well, but they were the exceptions). We all know that Art Babbit paid his assistant out of his own pocket so that the guy could actually pay his rent.

Every damned (non-union) sweatshop I've worked in has had a ping-pong table and a dart board. BFD.

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