Saturday, June 05, 2010

A Few Words About Non-Union Studios and Organizing

The comments down a couple of ratchets at "Rough Draft" have grown to be numerous and lively. Allow me to pick out a few assertions made there (some of which I have paraphrased) and make a few points, starting with:

"My employer doesn't want to go union."

Uh, employers never want to "go union." You think that Uncle Walt wanted his studio unionized, back in the day? Hell, no. How about Leon Schlesinger (who produced Looney Tunes and released through Warner Bros.)? Or Louis B. Mayer?

Nope, none of them did. It was going to cost more money, you see, and they didn't want to cough up more bucks. Totally understandable. But it wasn't their decision.

See, Congress had passed this bill (The National Labor Relations Act of 1938) making it the employees' right to decide if they wanted to be represented by a union or not. The bill is still the law of the land. So when somebody tells me, "My employer doesn't like the idea of a union around here." I reply: "Okay, but what do you want? Since it's your decision to make." ...

"This is a little mom and pop studio. They can't afford a union contract."

Funny thing. Years ago I got a version of this argument from Gabor Csupo. He went on and on about how the Animation Guild was no good, he hated it, etc. And they couldn't afford it. Oh, but he just loved the Screen Actors Guild. Thought they were great, thought they were the very model of a great organization, etc., even with the high scale rates and the residuals. He sat right there and told me so.

And I remember thinking: Like hell you do, Gabor. You're signed to the Screen Actors Guild because you need the actors they represent, and they won't work for you unless you sign a contract. Why do I think you're just putting a smiley spin on it?

Another way of putting this is: SAG had the leverage to get a contract out of Gabor, and TAG didn't. Sad, but true.)

The other point: With a few exceptions, there are no "mom and pop" studios. There are only cut-rate subcontractors performing work for one of five monster international entertainmet conglomerates. Klasky-Csupo, way back when, was mostly an arm of Viacom-Paramount-Nickelodeon. Rough Draft is a sub-set of Fox/News Corporation. And so on.

"I really don't like working for one of the big, union studios. I like the atmosphere at my non-union studio. The wages they pay are just as good as at those union places. My friend doing boards here is making above the union minimum."

Trust me on this. If a majority of animation studios weren't paying "union scale", the non-union places wouldn't be paying scale either.

Quick example: Twenty-plus years ago, when the Animation GUild was flat on its back and the animation business was in the doldrums with lots of unemployment, a non-signator studio named DIC was paying production board artists $500 per week when "union scale" was $1000.

Now, why was that, do you think?

Because it could get artists to work at $500/ week.

Then, twenty-two months later, the Animation Guild organized some places (though not DIC), the animation business took off employment-wise, and DIC -- clearly in a fit of selfless altruism -- raised salaries it paid board artists to ... $1000 per week.

(In other words, DIC boosted salaries because it had to in order to compete.)

As I get older, I get less patient with the bullshit that passes for some kind of received wisdom, even in the comment sections of blogs. (Used to lap up the bullshit when I was younger, but now I have a more delicate stomach.) Here are a few of the basic realities I have learned:

1) There is no "Fair."

2) There is no Perfect.

3) There is only what you have the ability -- collectively or individually -- to get.

And lastly: Knowledge gives you power.

Thank you for coming, and good night.


Floyd Norman said...

Well said, Steve. And of course, studios thrive on ignorance.

Another reason older employees are not wanted is because older workers see through the studio B.S.

Anonymous said...

At this point, I think every artist should have an emergency fund tucked away in a high-interest savings account at ING Direct or Alliant Credit Union. Just take 5% or more out of every paycheck and save it in the account.

I know this sound off-topic, but I know too many artists who live paycheck-to-paycheck. I suspect this financial strain plays into studios' hands when artists negotiate salaries, vote whether or not to go union and/or file grievances.

Steve's post concludes with "Knowledge gives you power." I think its corollary comes from Harlan Ellison's Spider Kiss, after the protagonist realizes he has enough assets to leave a horrible situation: "Money is freedom."

VonRiesling said...

I like this sort of plain talk. Maybe it will hit a nerve or two on the folks who would think it is in their best interest to stay non-union.

Anonymous said...

The above poster's investment advice is sound, yet I would add that one one acquires an adequate amount of savings, please diversify! Take a percentage of what you have and throw it into foreign markets through Charles Schwabb, or even buy some dependable stock.

Inflation is looming now more than ever and while that is not a guarantee that it will arrive, if it does, your saved money will take huge hit, whereas your alternative investments will be a god send.

Steve Hulett said...

"Money is freedom"

Precisely. Having "F-you money" is extremely important.

I learned this in the eighties, when I was young and mouthy and got bounced out of Disney Feature Animation. Afterwards, I had a tough three-and-a-half years, with lots of scuffling around making very small money. So I learned.

So now the Mrs. and I ...

* Put 25% of every nickel we earn into low-cost mutual funds and CDs.

* Buy only used cars (let somebody else take the depreciation hit), and keep the cars a looong time.

* Send our children to public schools and colleges.

We both saw the profligate spending when animation employees got hold of big paychecks in the 1990s. It was mostly big houses, high-end cars and SUVs and fancy home entertainment systems for many. We steered clear of all that. (Easy to do, since we weren't making the big money.)

The moral? Don't be stupid. (With money, with talent, with your finite amount of time.)

Anonymous said...

Rough Draft is not a subset of Fox.

Futurama is being aired on Comedy Central, which is basic cable.

If anything, Rough Draft is a subset of Greg Vanzo, who is a rather modest guy.

I've heard stories about Gabor Csupo but never worked for him personally. I don't think you can paint them with the same brush.

I guess I'm just one of those dumb, unfortunately not really young, animation people who just doesn't get it.

Anonymous said...

20th Century Fox still produces Futurama. Comedy Central airs it under an agreement with Fox.

Anonymous said...

Fox owns Futurama. Comedy Central airs it. Just like Fox owns Neighbors from Hell and TBS airs it.
All giant corporations.

The money does not come from Gregg. His company gets money from Fox and disperses it to its employees how they see fit. Overtime or No overtime benefits or none.

Everyone has been saying how well RDS pays, but they have to pay a slightly above union wages otherwise they would not get any good talent. But people need to realize that how it all adds up at the end of the year. Does your slightly above average pay equal out after you have to pay for Cobra, or would slightly less money coming in and not having to pay for health insurance coverage turn out to be better for the pocketbook/wallet. Sometimes numbers can be deceiving at just a glance.

It is great that you say Gregg is modest. Many millionaires are modest and don't live lavishly. These millionaires are smart men for not living lavishly. They are probably saving their money and using it wisely, as we all should do, but that has nothing to do with where your paycheck comes from.

Just remember FOX pays RDS' bills.

Anonymous said...

Warren Buffett lives in a modest house. The press always makes a deal about his modest house.

Warren also has 45 billion dollars, a plane, a few other odds and ends.

But he lives in the house he's lived in for sixty years, and eats in inexpensive restaurants.

By choice. Not necessity.

Anonymous said...

There is no way in hell our health and pension is going to escape more pummeling. Plan accordingly.

Anonymous said...

OMG Gregg Vanzo has $45 billion dollars and a plane!

You are right, I have been duped.

Anonymous said...

You were not duped about Greg. You were duped about where your paychecks come from. Fox pay for its show to be made. Not Greg.

Anonymous said...

There is no way in hell our health and pension is going to escape more pummeling. Plan accordingly.

Will do. I plan to apply for work at union shops as soon as I can.

Even if the union health and pension plans continue to get "pummeled," those plans will continue to receive a flow of money from studios. That money will continue to be redistributed to union members in the form of health and pension benefits. These benefits may get reduced due to medical inflation and poor stock markets, but they won't disappear.

Anonymous said...

those plans will continue to receive a flow of money from studios.

Something that hasn't been mentioned is that those plans don't just receive money from the studios, they receive hundreds of millions of dollars from residuals. Non-union animation artists don't see a penny of residuals. Union animation artists get millions of dollars in residuals that flow into their health and pension plans. That's why the union plans aren't an onerous burden for union studios.

How much money in residuals flow into RDS and is redistributed to the employees? Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Anonymous said...

Another benefit that the union has is severance/dismissal pay. I just got a check worth 2 weeks of pay from a studio that let me go earlier this year (thankfully, I was able to get a job at another union studio).

Does RDS (or any other non-union studio) offer this? Based on my experiences at non-union studios, I'm going to guess "No, they don't."

Anonymous said...

All this talk about how great the union pension is I think deserves a bit of reality here. I am by no means saying the amounts allocated to us are not a plus, but everyone needs to be aware that your personal retirement goals can be affected at any time by changes in the pension plan that can and do occur. In times like these, I would say that this happening is more likely than in a normal economic cycle. This should be paid attention to.

I think there is a tendency with people participating in defined-benefit to take for granted that their retirement is all figured out by that number sitting on the statement, and that every year they work that number is just going to increase. Then they forecast to 65 from there and make their plans - not how it often works. I think it would be great to have the union run a few different scenarios that can happen when economic realities affect MPIHPP.

Anonymous said...

Those scenarios have been run. Steve already blogged about it. The projections are that the pension plan is going to be just fine. Any changes to the plan would affect things going forward, not what has already been earned. If in future negotiations the pension calculations is changed, you can be sure we'll know about it, and that we can all plan accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Okay, thanks. Everything is going to be fine. Thanks BP.

You keep on sleeping through the recession, pal.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Anonymous@ June 12, 10:18:00AM, I'll admit our pension probably isn't the greatest one out there. And it might get diminished over the years with market downturns. But at least there's a chance (I'm hoping a very good chance) it will be there when I retire in 15-20 years. There's no 100 percent guarantee that our pensions will be there at the levels we hope for. But there's an 100 percent guarantee that non-union studios will NOT provide a pension style benefit to their artists.

Plus, none of the money put into our defined benefit and IAP plans came out of my pocket. The employers pay into the plans. If by some freakish accident the plans disappear, I haven't lost any of my money.

That being said, I agree with you that people should not solely rely on the pensions. I actually plan as if they WON'T be there for me. I contribute to our 401 (k), I contribute to an IRA unaffiliated to our union, and I put money into a brokerage account. Because I have a lot of time until my retirement, I can probably retire on just these three accounts. The pensions will be icing on the cake for me.

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