Thursday, December 13, 2012

Of Unions and Wages

Walking down the hall of a signator studio today, I was stopped by an artist who told me this:

"My last job was up at Laika. I liked the place, but I've been down here a bunch of month and man. The pay is way better. I mean, I really got a jump, which is amazing.

I wish I could stay here the next twenty years. That would be great." ...

I've heard this a number of times as Business Representative. "Man, my wages are better in this union studio ...".

(To be fair, I've also heard: "You know, I was making better bread at the non-union place in Glendale, and I didn't have to wait for health coverage, and I didn't have to pay your freaking fees!")

Here's my take: If you work in a TAG animation studio for twenty or more years, you will end up with more money and a more comfortable retirement than if you work at non-signator studios, even if those studios pay roughly equivalent wages. (Sometimes they do; often they don't. Depends on your skill set and the market.)

In the time I've done this job, I've had numbers of old-timers traipse into my office and tell me:

"I'm sixty-four, jobs have gotten scarce. I've got Social Security but I worked thirty years in non-union studios and there's no pension. What can you do for me?"

Inevitably, my answer is "Not much."

When an artist is on the back side of his career and the people who always recommended him for that next gig have retired, the options narrow. If you don't have a Plan B ("I'll retire a few years early and take 80% of the industry pension, also get most of Social Security ...") you can end up stocking shelves at Trader Joe's and replaying in your head where, exactly, you went wrong.

This could, of course, be the future of lots more artists and unionized workers if the recent Michigan and Indiana "right-to-work" snowballs keep rolling downhill, growing fatter as they go. The days when powerful labor unions could shut down entire industries are several country-miles behind us.

Long term, what this brave new world means for animation employees is, artists making less money week-to-week; artists working longer hours to maintain decent life-styles. Sadly, this is pretty much the direction working people have been traveling for years:

"There's been a very steady, long-term shrinkage" in the number of people in the middle class, said Paul Taylor, executive vice president for nonpartisan research group. "There's also less money in the middle."

Since 2001, median household income has fallen from $72,956 to $69,487 in 2010, the report said.

The median household net worth, which is the value of assets minus debt, dropped from $129,582 to $93,150 over the same 10-year period, according to Pew, which analyzed U.S. data along with its own survey of nearly 1,300 adults who consider themselves middle class. ...

Actually, real median income has been declining since the 1970s, around the time labor unions began their long slide in power and leverage. Coincidence? Or cause and effect? I'm not smart enough to know, though I have my suspicions.

But I've got three sure-fire remedies to the "every working stiff for himself" mania now sweeping the country: Be sure to live below your means, and tuck as much money as possible into retirement accounts. Also, work as long as you can.

Because when you reach the age of sixty-seven and pull that first, shrunken Social Security check, you will need every cent.


Celshader said...

Good advice. I'd also like to suggest making a Series I Savings Bond contribution every year after maxing out all possible contributions to retirement plans (IRAs, 401(k)s, SEP-IRAs) for that year.

Money contributed to a savings bond gets locked up for one year. After that one year passes, the I-Bonds can serve as a short-term emergency fund or as long-term retirement funds. I think this flexibility makes them an ideal vehicle for retirement savings outside of retirement accounts.

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