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LD On The DL: The Incredible, Bendable Contract

One of the hardest aspects of my job is navigating the complex union work rules that govern how our day unfolds. Specifically when do we bend the rules, and when do we adhere strictly to them? Given the additional workload in the TV industry these days because of political conventions, presidential debates, and new T.V. shows, I find myself asking this question several times a week. Answering the question affects budgets, OT, and start times so -- in actual dollars -- how we address the issue matters tremendously.

Overall I’m a big supporter of the union movement, and I understand why the rules exist. I also love contracts. I like working from a document that delineates how management and labor will conduct business. Contracts provide guidance, which I find immensely comforting. I make so many decisions on a daily basis, it’s a luxury to have some decisions already made. I also think the structured union work-rules make a lot of sense. I worked for companies where crews do not regularly break, where lunchtime floats between 4 and 8 hours after the call start time, and where there are no significant penalties for disorganized (or incompetent) employers who feel at liberty to hold crews hostage on-site, like in a tent on Long Island, for well over 10 hours without food, water, or meals. That is not a sustainable work environment, and, in fact, it’s abusive.

So rules are a good thing; I like rules. However, an absolute stance on rules directly conflicts with my primary job, i.e., client service. I’ve said this before: most of us are, first, in the business of client service and, second, our specialty. I have to balance these work-rules I believe in and feel protect workers with what my employer actually pays me to do. The neatness of a contract often devolves with the compromises made on-site.

Let’s look at two examples. My usual beat is a cable news show. For special events the usual routine gets turned upside down. Overnight the set must be lit for several hosts which occupy it at once. All need to be lit from all cameras throughout the two to four hour long live show, often without any serious rehearsal or prep time. The next day, everything must be restored.

The crew and I have a choice to make: Do we stay late and restore the rig back to its original configuration, or do we come in early the next day? Usually most prefer to arrive early the next day. Most live in Jersey, Long Island, or the outer boroughs of New York and getting home after midnight via mass transit can be difficult. However, by coming in the next day we mess up meal times. Two hours into the call, we must take lunch. Then the regular call begins. Four after later, we take another lunch, unpaid. All of this is ... you guessed it ... bending the rules of the contract. Contractually, lunch should be called between 4 and 6 hours into the call. Contractually, the second meal is paid.

Rather, staying late just adds 90 minutes of OT (with no complications the next day) but majorly inconveniences the crew, who want to get home after what has been an incredibly long, hard day. These guys have been on their feet all day moving mountains to make things happen. It is not unreasonable to want to go home after that. So on one hand is the contract, on the other hand is my empathy. My instinct as a human being is to be empathetic, but everyone must make contortions around the work rules the next day, which sometimes make me feel uncomfortable.

How about another example: Consider half days, where the crew is often cut well before the typical eight hours. What happens to lunch? As per most contracts, after the 6th hour a meal penalty is triggered. So should the crew charge a meal penalty if the production works a little beyond the 6 hours?

On the one hand, I like adhering to the letter of the contract. A meal penalty should be billed. However, one cannot ignore the other variables. The client could have set the call time for earlier (to make the day a full 8 hours) or not released the crew early at all. So, by the Rule of Reciprocity, it would be obtuse to charge for a meal penalty. After all, everybody likes leaving work early still on-the-clock. If somebody got a little hungry after the 6th hour, so be it. The client bent the contract rules, so labor does the same.

However reciprocity is a slippery slope, and one I’m generally uncomfortable with. This particular scenario benefits the crew: we left work several hours earlier than usual. However, what happens when the client expects reciprocity and it does not work out in labor’s favor? What’s to stop the client from saying, “Look, we gave you several half days the past couple of months. It cost us, but we paid. How about you not bill us for this unexpected OT? That seems only fair.” Now what?

The flexible, client service person in me wants to say, “Yes, happy to help.” My primary job is to make sure the client is happy. However, guys on the crew (who may or may not have benefited from the half-days) may feel quite differently about missing out on OT pay. I can’t ask somebody to work extra hours without extra pay, even if from a reciprocity and/or client-service perspective it’s the right thing to do. So am I supposed to pay out of my pocket and make up the difference? Am I suppose to “make it up to the crew” at some later date by padding the out time on a future call? By this point I’m so confused by the web of indebtedness it makes my brain hurt.

Sometimes the reverse of the above example happens. The crew ignores a meal penalty here or fudges lunch there. They bend the rules, and in return expect the rules to be bent by management or the client. When that does not happen, the crew becomes frustrated or, worse, angry which leads to all kinds of bad blood between labor and management. That gets real ugly, real fast and ultimately hurts the union specifically and the union system at large.

In a perfect world the contract would never be broken. Its word would be law, no matter who it inconvenienced. While I sometimes wish I lived in such a structured universe, I cannot pretend I do. That rigidity makes for poor client service and bad interpersonal relationships. One thing I’ve learned about T.V.: it’s all about the interpersonal relationships. Concessions, compromises, deals -- whatever you want to call them -- must be made. However, I do not believe they should be made lightly or often. Any time we bend the contract, we weaken it. Contracts are what govern how and why we are paid. We ignore or marginalize them at our own peril.

If concessions are made, no reciprocity should be expected from any party, ever. Deal-making, favors, and indebtedness comprise what I least like about unions. The routine practice that requires me to return a favor to a guy who did me a favor can lead to the cronyism union critics use as proof the whole system is corrupt, dysfunctional, and should be dismantled.

Perhaps “bends” in the contract can be contractually structured. For example two times in a rolling month the regular contract rules can be bent if all parties agree during unique or extraordinary circumstance. However, once exhausted the regular rules must be adhered to. That would require enormous discipline though.

Contracts and the unions work rules exist for a reason. Flexibility does too. Both are important for a cohesive and sustainable work environment, but they must exist harmoniously. Too much contract, the work environment becomes overbearing and we fail at client service, a very important aspect of all our jobs. Too much flexibility, deals and favoritism weaken labor’s position long term or, conversely, the crew suffers abuse at the whims of management.

Regardless, for those of us on the front lines -- who balance crew welfare, client service, and the contract -- before tossing the rules aside and upsetting the balance, make sure it’s worth it. In my experience, it often isn’t.

Lance Darcy is a Lighting Designer and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City.

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