Friday, June 30, 2006

Organizing Film Roman (IDT Entertainment)

It's 1991. A new, small studio named Film Roman has recently opened for business in Toluca Lake California, run by animation veteran Phil Roman... The studio is producing episodes of "Garfield" and doing well. It also has a number of animation union members, and we collect rep cards -- postcard-size documents saying the signer wants to be represented by a union -- from about 40% of FR's staff. I have my doubts about whether we have enough cards to win an election, but the union executive board thinks otherwise. "We can win this," a board member says. "We ought to go for it!" So we do. And a month later, a Federal election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board is held. And we have our large, round butts handed to us. The ballot tally is 22 for the company, 3 for the union. Good soldier that I am, I inform the IATSE -- our mother international -- about our loss. An IA official gives me a terse and pungent response: "Jesus, Hulett. That election, that's f*cking pathetic. You lose an organizing election that bad, why do you even f*cking bother?" FADE OUT FADE IN It's summer, 2004. I am sitting in my office, dreaming my summer dreams. A Film Roman artist walks in and tells me that Film Roman employees are "really upset" how the company has cut pension and health benefits by 50%, and "want to go union." I smile and bob my head. I know about the benefit cuts. Nine months previously, some agitated Film Roman employees -- also angry about benefit cuts -- tell me the company employees are mad and "want to go union." All excited, I rush up to the sidewalk in front of the studio and hand out rep cards and flyers. And get even more excited when I collect ninety representation cards. Hot damn. But my excitement fades when a Roman director tells me "There's 230 artists in there. You're about forty cards short of a majority." Learning from our earlier mistake, we don't file for an election. So now, three-quarters of a year later, here's another disgruntled Film Roman artist, wanting me to go out and leaflet the studio. Instead, I slap a stack of rep cards into his hands and tell him: "I can only bang my head against a brick wall so many times. You go collect a bunch of signatures on these cards, and THEN I'll go up there to Film Roman. Maybe." One week later, he's back with signed cards. He asks: "Can you hold a meeting for the employees? I know I can get people there." I say sure, schedule a meeting at a hall near the studio, and think little more about it. Until the day for the meeting arrives and I'm standing in the office trying to decide where to eat lunch, and the office manager lowers the phone and says: "Are you supposed to be at an organizing meeting? There's a guy on the phone wondering where you are." My brain synapses fire at full velocity as I realize I'VE FORGOTTEN ABOUT THE DAMN MEETING AND I'M -- HOLY SHIT -- TWENTY FIVE MINUTES LATE! I break a half dozen traffic laws getting to the meeting hall that's a mile and a half away. I am talking and handing out three-color brochures as I sprint through the door. About sixty people are there, listening in rapt attention to my adrenaline-laced spiel. After I finish running my mouth, half of them stick around to get more information. Like a dislodged boulder lumbering downhill, events unfold at an accelerating clip. Rep cards pour in. I stand outside Film Roman two or three mornings a week, for once getting smiles and high fives instead of the stinkeye that organizers usually get from employees nervous about talking to a union stiff who lurks in front of their non-union company's doors. In a matter of weeks, 60% of Film Roman employees give us rep cards. We file a petition with the NLRB for an election, and IDT, the company that owns El Roman, begins an anti-union campaign against the Animation Guild. It's less than marginally effective because IDT's lawyers have less than a marginal knowledge of the 'toon business. Every time a generic anti-union screed comes down from the front office, a Film Roman employee hands it to me outside the front doors, and we quickly bang out a response. This goes on for weeks. At last election day arrives, and "Simpsons" staff, "King of the Hill" staff and everybody else troop down to the second floor conference room to vote. I show up late for the vote count, which has started without me. Management is there, on time and in full force -- Phil is long gone -- and they're not happy with my unprofessionalism. But they get less happy as the vote tally unfolds, for the company isn't getting many votes. I watch their faces sag as the Animation Guild piles up ballots. At the end, TAG has 166 of 186 votes, or 89 percent of the ballots in its column. The executives' defeated expressions firm up into masks of stolid resignation, and we all shake hands. On the way back to my car I think, "Amazing. This time we won by almost the same percentage we lost the last time." It only took thirteen and a half years to do it. Moral: All things come to those who wait. All it takes is critical mass, a tipping point, and enough employees who are mad enough to really want it.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sorry for my ignorance, but what does this mean, exactly? Will employees at Film Roman be able to become unionized now?

Anonymous said...

"Garfield" Good show, cool cat.

I must say I'm glad my daughters are 17 and 20 years of age and didn't have to sit and watch "Homer" or the "Propain Man"
for entertainment.

As I see it. It took 13 years for TV shows to decay.

Nothing against the union.

Everybody have a great 4th and enjoy the 5th too.

Dog Man.

S. R. Hulett said...

To clarify: The Animation Guild won a union election at Film Roman 13 1/2 years after losing one.

Three months later, we reached agreement on Film Roman's first union contract. That's a story in itself -- told in due time.

Even when unions or guilds WIN National Labor Relations Board elections, collective bargaining agreements between union or company are achieved less than 50% of the time.

Kevin Koch said...

To clarify a bit further, the first step in most unionizing drives is collecting "rep cards" (cards from individual employees at a studio expressing interest in being represented by a given union in collective bargaining -- and yes, the rep cards are kept completely confidential from the studio). That's all a rep card is -- an official, confidential, non-binding expression of union interest.

If the union gets enough rep cards (at least 40% of the employees, but usually you want more, as Steve indicated), and you can go to the NLRB, who verifies the cards and calls for an in-studio vote. So even if you signed a rep card, you could later vote no, and vice versa. The rep cards expire after 6 months, or when an employee leaves the studio.

If the union wins that formal election election, it only means that the company is required to negotiate in good faith with the union to reach a contract. If the negotiations stalemate for long enough, the whole process dies. As Steve said, in many industries the success rate on reaching an actual contract even after winning an election is far from certain. I think our record is significantly better than 50%, but I could be wrong.

If the union wins that vote by a wide margain, and the employees are solid in their desire to go union, then the likelihood of successful negotiations go up astronomically. That was certainly the case at Film Roman. So, yes, the Film Roman animation employees are union. As is the IDT feature group, though that came later.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Film Roman might have joined up years ago if the Union hadn't sent out that notice in the early nineties to Film Roman employees: "JUST SIGN THE FUCKING CARD!!" Remember?

S.R. Hulett said...

Quite well, in fact.

Tom wrote a pretty hot letter, I looked at it and suggested he change a few things, and we sent it out.

It went over like a load of horse manure. I got a bunch of angry phone calls from Film Romanians, as did Tom (and one elliptical death threat). Thoughout, I explained that the PRESIDENT is the head of the guild and I'm not in the habit of censoring the head of the guild. And that the President wrote the letter, not me.

It didn't help TAG's campaign, but the campaign wouldn't have been victorious anyway.

There was one interesting postscript: a Film Roman employee went over to work at Disney and was still hot about the letter. The ex-FRian showed Tom Sito's angry letter to a Disney animator, expecting sympathetic outrage about how horrible and abusive it was. Instead he got:

"This thing seems pretty accurate about the situation to me. What's your problem with it?"

Kevin Koch said...

I'm constantly being reminded that for many people it doesn't matter how wonderful, or terrible, the union is in reality (in terms of pension, health, greviance process, fighting for wage improvements and credits, etc.) -- what really affects people's perceptions are often purely symbolic. People will hate the union forever because of a random comment, or because of a third-hand tale of union indifference or abuse (often accepted as fact without the listener wondering if they're getting the straight scoop).

Time and again I see people act against their own best interests over purely emotional (and often trivial) things.

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