Monday, October 1, 2018

The Power Fulcrum

Back during my working life (now twenty months distant) I wrote and talked a lot about "leverage". What I meant by that was the power to achieve things you believed were important. (Another way of framing it: What's the maximum point of lift on the fulcrum?)

Labor unions today have less power/leverage than they used to, but they still have some leverage. The question is, how much leverage?

I would submit to you that nobody ever knows precisely what leverage they possess, but the more information they have, the easier it is for them to judge. Here's an example:

Several months before I departed the Animation Guild, we were renegotiating Nick's Collective Bargaining Agreement (a.k.a. "the union contract"). The lawyer negotiating for Nick said the company was happy to agree to what other studios had gotten in recently concluded negotiations, but ... the company just had to get the ten sick days guaranteed in the Nickelodeon contract whittled down to five days, because that's what Nick's non-union employees were no getting. It just wasn't "fair" to those employees that union artists were getting double that number of days*.

I suggested a simple solution: just raise the non-union employees back up to ten sick days. Problem solved!

The lawyer told me (sadly) that was unfortunately out of the question. But in the name of fairness, justice and equity, the guild had to take five days instead of ten.

I told her no. There were ten sick days in the contract, and ten days were going to stay in the contract.

I also told her I didn't believe in "fair". I believed in keeping gains that were in the contract.

She said that Nick and the Animation Guild would never reach a deal if I had that kind of attitude.

I said "Okay then. We won't reach a deal."

At which point she hung up.

Over the next few months there were more phone calls, more bogus studio hand-wringing, more appeals to "fairness", and more not-gonna-happens from me. The refrains of "unfair" and "unreasonable" never stopped. Ultimately (and with the help of the I.A.) the Animation Guild achieved what it sought and kept the ten sick days. The question was never really in doubt, because we knew that Nick wasn't going to blow up the contract over a difference of five sick days.

We had knowledge of the power fulcrum (i.e., what we could achieve).

And now it's two years further on, and word reaches me out here in the desert that both the I.A. Basic Agreement and the Animation Guild's Master Agreement are the subjects of lively debates between the "Vote Yes on the contract!" proponents and the "Vote No! We can do better!" adherents.

Basically, it comes down to believing either 1) the negotiators used their leverage as well as they could, or 2) the negotiators loused up and could have achieved more, so they should go back and try again ... with a picket line out on the sidewalk to increase leverage.

That is pretty much it, but it's useful to examine the leverage thingie.

The IATSE has never done an industry-wide strike over the Basic Agreement, so the international has never fully tested where the power fulcrum is. But thirty-six years ago, the Animation Guild hit the bricks for the second time in three years to exert maximum leverage in its contract negotiations.

Three years before (1979), Local 839 had correctly judged where its power fulcrum was and achieved a contract that guaranteed employment for members before work could be sent out of Southern California.

Unfortunately in 1982 it misjudged its leverage, endured a long strike, and failed to achieve its goals.

So what happened?

In '82, the animation union thought it had more power than it actually did. It was facing down a medium-sized company named Hanna-Barbera, a bunch of smaller animation studios, and Walt Disney Productions, which was at the time a medium-sized movie studio attached to BIG amusement parks. But this second time around, the studios were prepared for a strike, and dug in. They were determined to get rid of the "runaway production clause" and held out until they achieved their goal.

So what about now?

The IATSE and the Animation Guild, (Local 839 IATSE) face large conglomerates that have resources and global reach. If the talent pools for live-action and/or animation in Southern California become unavailable, they can shift work to Australia, Canada, Georgia, Great Britain ... or Emeryville. They will calculate that union members won't be able to hold on much beyond five or six weeks, and so they can wait the work stoppage out.

Of course, the AMPTP can always renegotiate the agreement and give the striking unions a better deal, but (at least in my time), the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers' operating philosophy was: "They go out on strike, we give them a lesser deal, not a better deal."

Whether that motto still holds, I don't know. But if it doesn't, there is probably a close cousin to it back there in the AMPTP offices, waiting to be dusted off.

I've gotten a bunch of calls and messages asking me, "Do you think the contract will get approved?" Here's what an old fud who's close to two years out of the loop thinks:

1) Yes it will be approved ... because the negotiation committee did its homework, presented its arguments well, and achieved the best deal (or close to) that could be gotten.

2) The membership is wide, diverse, and most members are employed. Few will want to have the negotiation committee return to the table to achieve a "same as" or lesser result while they walk up and down a picket line earning no money.

Most people that I talk to get where the power fulcrum is.

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