TAG, like any good little labor organization, is interested in organizing new studios that haven't seen fit to sign our collective bargaining agreement. This isn't always easy, because studios working without benefit of contract often like to stay that way.
We are currently working to organize an animation facility that isn't keen to be part of our club. As we always do, we've phoned employees, written employees. Happily, it hasn't just been me sending the letters. One of our executive board members, K.C. Johnson, wrote an eloquent missive about what becoming part of the union has meant to her and what she hopes it will mean to others. We share a large part of it below:
... I’m writing today to ask you to vote “Yes” for The Animation Guild. No one’s asked me to write this letter. I am on the Guild’s Executive Board, and have thus heard about the current union drive. I’m writing because I know from my own experience that a unionized [cartoon studio] would greatly benefit you as a working artist and member of the wider animation community. ... I‘d like to share some information you may not know, and ask you to think about some serious questions.
Although they don’t arrive in our mailboxes like the Writer’s Guild, we as artists do earn residuals. The studios pay them directly into our Health and Pension Plan, along with the residuals of all the other IATSE guilds (i.e. grips, art directors, etc.). Count how many times episodes of [your studio's shows] have aired in first run and reruns. You are paid for that … if you’re receiving Motion Picture benefits. If you’re not receiving these benefits, who gets the money? Not [your studio], and not you. You forfeit them completely.
Since most of you will soon be transitioning off of the Motion Picture health plan, I think you’re familiar with it. But my husband is a freelance comic book artist with no benefits. We had a baby in 2008 that cost us a total of $130 out of pocket -- for everything, including the delivery. Now, all three of us are covered for a premium of ... $0 a year. With $5 co-pays for doctor’s visits at the Motion Picture clinic.
Don’t forget about the portability. Will you be at [your current studio] forever? Imagine no loss of coverage through hiatus, between jobs, for even up to a year and a half! With that $0 annual premium. COBRA premiums can run from $400 to over $900 a month.
The Animation Guild has three pieces to its pension plan.
1. 401(k): Voluntary. Use it or don’t use it. It includes Vanguard funds, which are very good.
2. Pension: Requires ... zero effort on your part, and zero dollars out of your paycheck. Studios contribute for you for every hour you work. For me, as of December 2009, my 7 years at union shops have already guaranteed me over $450 a month when I retire. How does [your studio’s] pension compare? Additionally, when you reach the 15-year mark, you earn Motion Picture health plan benefits throughout retirement. I’ve been watching my 66-year-old (now retired) mom manage my 98-year-old grandmother’s care for quite some years. If you think having a good health plan now is important... just wait.
Here’s a very important detail: you are not vested until you’ve earned five years. If you stop working at union shops and have less than five years, you could lose the credit towards your vesting and have to start over. Do you know how many years you have vested now? [Call MPIPHP to find out the answer: (818) 769-0007, extension 627.] Having [your place of work] as a union studio would help to steer you towards vesting, not away from it.
3. Individual Account Plan (IAP): Requires ... zero effort on your part, and zero dollars out of your paycheck. It just accumulates, same as your pension. And unlike the pension, it vests after only one year! As of December 2009, with only 7 years, my IAP has over $27,000 in it. I get all of it when I retire, and it grows with every hour I work at a union shop. This is real money we’re talking about here (Twenty. Seven. Grand.), and it only costs the studios pennies per hour, per person. Like buying some cans of soda per artist per day. Is [your studio] helping you save for retirement, or are they just providing the soda? ...
I was at Film Roman when we went union (with some of you), and experienced the same fear and guilt you’re likely subject to now. Plenty of “We can’t afford it!” and “Why would you do that to us, we’re family!” and the like.
Our top brass at the time included John Hyde, Mike Wolf, and Scott Greenberg, all of whom fought hard against the guild. Now, two of them, John Hyde and Scott Greenberg, have started up a new production studio, which is now union. They came to us. If their experience with The Animation Guild was so awful, the purported enforced accountability and loss of control so terrible, why would they voluntarily knock on our door and say “sign us up”?
A Union is Only as Strong as Its Members
I’ve heard it said “We have the weakest effing union.” And it’s true that our union is a quiet one. You won’t see our dramas and arguments splashed across the front page of Variety. But we are only as strong as our members. And quite honestly, most animators don’t want to create trouble and they don’t want to strike. They’re content when they can come in, do their work, get the job done well, and go home. That’s what the Guild helps to facilitate.
Did you hear that [Studio X] last year seriously considered eliminating sick days? Our union sure helped to make that idea disappear fast. Our guild doesn't brag about its successes, and maybe that's a mistake. But, what you need to ask yourself is, will allowing [your studio] to remain non-union help to make your guild any stronger?
Your Peers Need You
This current drive to unionize [your studio] started from within. Your colleagues are behind this push. The Animation Guild cannot represent a studio unless the artists choose to let it.
And perhaps this is not a big deal for you. Maybe your spouse has good medical benefits and/or you already have ample retirement savings. Maybe you can stand to benefit, but it’s not a big deal.
…What about your colleague one or two cubicles down? This matters to them. It matters enough for them to fight hard for this. You may be on the fence, but for some of your peers these are major, major issues, and they need you to be on their side.
I hope you’re still with me, reading, this far. It’s just hard to convey how important it is that we have a union, and how much sweat and passion the artists before us put into creating it. You are in the unique position to help push the boundaries, and secure some really vital benefits and protections for yourself.
When Film Roman went union in something like season 16 of “The Simpsons”, I saw the faces of the longtime crew turn ashen when they realized, “If we had been union this whole time, we’d have 16 years in and have secured health benefits through retirement. We’d be there, and now, we have to start from scratch.”
Making [your studio] into a union shop is not a betrayal of your employment there. Nor is it a nail in the coffin. A unionized Film Roman is doing just fine. So is Nickelodeon… Cartoon Network… Warner Brothers… Disney… Adelaide… DreamWorks… Fox Animation… you get the idea. The animation business is ebb and flow. If a studio’s going to go under, it will be due to poor management, not unionized artists.
At the end of the day, if you remember anything, remember that [your studio] is a business. That fact motivates all of their actions. [They'll] look out for themselves ...
The Animation Guild’s sole purpose is to look out for you. No one else is doing that.
Please vote “YES” in the upcoming election. You don’t need to say anything at the studio, stick your head out, wave a union flag, nothing. Do your work, and when it comes time, vote “yes”.
If you’d like my help or assistance in any way, I’m there. My biggest motivation for being on the Executive Board is to help improve the Guild’s service to its members. I invite you to call me with any questions or concerns you‘d like to discuss.
Thanks for your time, and I hope you‘ll decide to let the Guild support you by representing your interests.
I'll add my two cents to what Ms. Johnson says above: Over the last seventy years entertainment companies -- and many of their employees -- have thrived under unionization. Motion pictures and television shows are one of the United States' more profitable exports, narrowing the trade gap and providing thousands of jobs. I've seen a number of animation studios fade out of existence in the course of my career; I've yet to see any disappear because they were unionized. Bad management was always the culprit.
Unions, as I've said before, are not the end-all and be-all. But they help spread a little of the money around to people who need it a bit more than the fifty-million-dollar-a-year chieftans who sit at the top of the Hollywood pyramid. And that, to my mind, is a good thing.