Monday, February 19, 2007

Why Pixar Won't Soon Go Union (Probably)

Grizzled old union organizers (of which I am one) learn various rules as they work to drag non-union companies into the union fold. Here are three basic ones:

1) Abusive company management is an organizer's best friend.

2) A company won't get organized until company employees reach a "tipping point" and get fed up with the status quo.

3)Treating employees well enables a company to avoid unions.

A case in point is the Disney Company's non-union animation studio Pixar. The Emeryville facility has been around for a dozen years making animated features, and it's been "non-signator" from the first day of its existence to right this minute.

One reason for this is, it's in the Bay area, where very little cgi work is unionized. Another reason is Pixar management's style and philosophy. To wit:

Pixar Keeps Its Crises Small, Says Founder Catmull

Pixar thrives because it seeks out small crises, said Ed Catmull, the animation studio’s president and cofounder.

Rather than skate on the success of animated hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, Pixar’s executive team continually solves problems in hopes of avoiding big ones, Catmull told a packed auditorium at the Stanford Graduate School of Business Conference on Entrepreneurship on January 31.

The last thing anyone wants to do after producing a hit movie is dissect what worked and what didn't but Catmull insists on postmortems. “Organizations are inherently unstable,” he said. “You have to work to keep them going.”

To not engage in workplace soul searching is to invite potentially catastrophic problems for your business. Look at what happened to Evans & Sutherland and Silicon Graphics, Inc., both of which lost their place at the top of the computer graphics industry after a few serious mistakes, Catmull said. Success can mask a company’s problems until it buckles.

Catmull thought he’d learned this lesson from watching other companies, but when he and his colleagues began working on their second movie, A Bug’s Life, they faced lingering problems from Toy Story, their first release in 1995. Pixar’s jump into the movie business left newly arrived production managers feeling like second-class citizens to the artists and computer animators who had shaped the company’s first success. Coordinating the detail-oriented work of moviemaking had choked off communication. The problems were fixable, but they could easily have festered.

Making movies at Pixar also taught him the value of people over ideas.

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre group, they’ll screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a good group, they’ll fix it,” he said.

To avoid such problems, Pixar’s development department now spends much of its time building healthy creative teams.

Catmull also believes in taking care of employees, both in principle and as a money-saving tool. With so many “overachieving people working for overachieving managers” to produce Toy Story 2, Pixar started limiting the number of hours people could work and hired a full-time ergonomist and masseuse. Injuries dropped dramatically, along with insurance premiums, he said...

The question I most often got from Disney animation employees when Disney absorbed Pixar was: "Is Pixar going union?"

At first I said, "I don't know." Then, as the merger dust settled and I got more information, I replied: "I don't think so. Not soon, anyway."

I pretty much feel the same way now. Pixar employees, I keep getting told, have lower rates of pay than its unionized Disney Feature counterparts in Burbank. This may or may not be true, but I haven't confirmed the information. And have no real way to confirm it. But pay won't be most Pixar employees' determining motivation for wanting to "go union." (At least, I don't think it will be.)

Pulling in the other direction will be the overall studio culture, that sense of fulfillment and well-being which comes from working on quality films (and here Pixar currently bats seven for seven). These things are intangibles that often trump mere moolah. And of course, there's the pride people have in working for Pixar because it's, well, Pixar.

So then, what would make Pixar slide over into the union column? Possibly changed perceptions. Maybe a different culture. If, for instance, management got more arbitrary and abusive. Or like, if the Pixar story department decided it would be better served by organizing under the WGAw, with all the residuals and other goodies that would flow from a WGAw contract. Then there might be a surge in that direction. (As President Bush says, sometimes money trumps other things. Even a pleasant studio environment.)

Like I say, there's always that elusive and ever-shifting "tipping point." Sometimes its hard for management or employees to know exactly where it is.

13 comments:

MrFun said...

I never thought about this until now.

Back in the late nineties, I moved up to Pixar to work on "Toy Story2" and "Monsters, Inc." This was because Pixar was a partner with Disney, and the studio "loaned" me to them. As a union employee was I in violation of working for a non-union studio?

Steve Hulett said...

No, you were most likely a "loan out" from WDFA. That is, still payrolled at Feature Animation, but working for Pixar.

TAG had no rules about members working for a non-signator studio.

At some point, it might become an issue for people working at Pixar that there are pay discrepancies, but I don't think it's reached critical mass.

Anonymous said...

3)Treating employees well enables a company to avoid unions.

I thought this line was funny. It sounds like you consider it a problem when companies treat their employees well.

See, here's how the line should have been written:

3)Treating employees well means you just don't need a union.

After all, isn't the union's chief purpose to make things better for employees? Well, if the employees are being treated well, what exactly would the union bring to the table?

Anonymous said...

Although Pixar generally pay lower salaries than studios in LA. They are still paying higher than Union minimums. Therefore, there is no gain in that department either.

Anonymous said...

I once worked in a ’Union house’ at a Feature Studio in the mid 90’s, and was being paid way under Union scale with the explanation: ‘Since you are foreign, from Europe you will have to take the pay, or you can leave.’ Besides of cause also paying the legal fees for the company involved with all the attorneys etc. Let me say, without my friends, it wasn’t easy to make ends meet, even though it should have been different if the company had played fair. Later at another Union Feature studio, the story repeated itself. However, I had enough and ‘half’ broke a contract and went to a 3rd Studio, which luckily played by the rules... (almost).
Being new in the field at the time, learning a new culture, language and conditions in general, I just took what I could in order to get a foot in the door. Being young and all.. However I believe, the union has since then become more ‘aggressive’ also for ‘us’ from Europe. The Union is good after all, and I am a strong believer that we have to support our union representatives – In the thick and the thin! Yes, Unions in Europe have a stronger root in the population, which might root back from hundreds of years of history. But if we do not support the people who basically are ‘fighting’ on the behalf of all of us, well where are we going then?? Being a union representative seems to be a very disrespectful job unfortunately. I think we all need to ask ourselves: Can I do the job better as a representative? It doesn’t help anyone to become bitter; we all have our good and bad experiences in animation. But no matter what, staying strong together can only lead a strong workforce with rights. Maybe when we are young we feel it all doesn’t matter, but when we all turn 40 and are hitting the ‘old age’ in animation, what then.. Maybe if we all tried our best to be a circle of strength, and support each other… Well, then maybe animation would be a more united field in many ways.

Thank you to you guys and girls representing the union. Keep up the good work. You hear a lot of negative comments from left and right, but thank you for still fighting… for us… for me.

Steve Hulett said...

3)Treating employees well means you just don't need a union....

After all, isn't the union's chief purpose to make things better for employees? Well, if the employees are being treated well, what exactly would the union bring to the table?


Actually, I think a union's chief purpose is to get more and better wages and benefits for members.

At the end of the day, money is the vehicle by which you improve your life.

Well, if the employees are being treated well, what exactly would the union bring to the table?

Oh, little things like health insurance, pensions, residuals. And wage floors that keep pace with inflation.

Anonymous said...

But Steve, those things, insurance, raises, etc. are things that would fall under the "employees being treated well" category. Surely if the employees wanted those things and weren't getting them they wouldn't consider themselves to be being treated well, right? So again, why is there an attitude of anger or indignation towards a company that's treating its employees great but isn't a union signatory? I'd think people should be happy. Unless of course their real reason for being pro-union is for personal power reasons. But what are the chances of that? Nah, couldn't happen.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid i have to agree. if a non - union studio is treating their employees well. there's no real need for an artists guild. and for many people its not just about getting a fat paycheck, its about having pride in working on a great product that you can truly be proud of. money comes and goes having a blast on a good production is priceless.

Steve Hulett said...

But Steve, those things, insurance, raises, etc. are things that would fall under the "employees being treated well" category.

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. "Being treated well" is a moving target, without definition or parameters.

"Working on a great project" might be the definition of being treated well. Didn't stop 40% of the Disney staff from walking out in a two-month strike in 1941, when they were clearly working on great projects, but hey. We all have our ideas about being treated well.

Surely if the employees wanted those things and weren't getting them they wouldn't consider themselves to be being treated well, right?

Again, you'd get a thousand different answers and a thousand different reasons for those answers. Some would be happy with the status quo, others wouldn't be, others would be keeping their mouths shut either way.

So again, why is there an attitude of anger or indignation towards a company that's treating its employees great but isn't a union signatory?

No anger from me, anon. The title of the post is: "Why Pixar Won't Soon Go Union..." What's angry about that? What's angry in the post?

Anonymous said...

But Steve, those things, insurance, raises, etc. are things that would fall under the "employees being treated well" category. Surely if the employees wanted those things and weren't getting them they wouldn't consider themselves to be being treated well, right? So again, why is there an attitude of anger or indignation towards a company that's treating its employees great but isn't a union signatory?

I have a story for you. Long ago a VFX house called Netter Digital was once a fabulous place to work -- you got your health insurance after only one month of working there, and you got a great salary to boot. They also paid for holidays and sick days. I heard they treated their employees very well during the days of Babylon 5.

Well, in 2000 Netter's management changed, and to make matters worse...Netter fell on hard times. One day a Netter employee went to fill out a prescription and found out he was no longer insured. Turned out that Netter Digital had cancelled the health insurance policy without telling the employees that they were no longer insured. I heard later that Netter faced a choice between the health insurance and the electricity bill, but they could have at least informed the employees -- especially those handing Netter checks for COBRA!

A wise employee rallied the others. The employees pooled together their own money to buy back their group-rate health insurance. They got their health insurance back.

...and a few months later Netter laid all of them off, right on July 4th so they wouldn't owe any holiday pay.

If Netter had been a union shop, everyone would have had the option of COBRA on their union health plans. As it was, folks scrambled to get onto their spouses' health plans, or just crossed their fingers and hoped they wouldn't get sick.

-+-

It's possible that Pixar will always enjoy good, sensible management and continue to earn enough wealth to treat their employees well. A union guarantees those benefits, though!

MattyMatt said...

I think that the thing that a union brings to any employee is a specific, agreed-upon, non-moving description of what "treated well" means. So that way, the company knows what it has to provide (and continue to provide) to fulfill its employees' wishes and keep them happy.

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