Saturday, April 08, 2006

More on animation writing jurisdiction

Mark Evanier has posted some thoughts on the LA Times article about the "turf battle" between the IA and the WGA on his excellent blog, news from me. I enjoy reading Mark because, besides being a bright, clear thinker, he gives good reasons for his views. Unfortunately, in this case I think he's a little mistaken . . . Referring to the Animation Guild having writers under its jurisdiction, Mark writes that "I couldn't see that the Screen Cartoonists Guild (as 839 was then called) wanted us for any reasons other than we paid the most dues and that when you threaten a strike, having the writers walk out is the first step in halting production." This is wrong on several counts. First, writers are in the same dues category as animation, layout, story art, backgrounds, production boards, model design, and the technical director positions (modeling, lighting, rigging, etc.). Our top dues are just under $400 a year. The idea that we maintain jurisdiction over writers because we profit off their backs is, well, silly. As for striking, if we did call a strike, having the writers strike would only affect those productions not yet in production. If you want a real strike, you have everyone in every job category strike. The writers would be no more, or less, crucial in an animation strike than any of the dozens of other job categories we cover. The piece also perpetuates a couple of other ideas that are, I think, off base. It is not some "fluke" that TAG represents animation writers. It's true that, when local 839 was first formed, there were few people in animation doing only writing, since most stories were created through outlines, story sketches, and storyboards. But for decades animation productions have used scripts, and until about 8 years ago the WGA didn't attempt to cover any of it. I have yet to see any evidence that writers of animation scripts in the '60's, '70's, or '80's had the slightest notice of the WGA. Animation has long been the bastard step-child of the entertainment world (at least until very recently), and for most of our 50+ year history we've been the only union that gave a damn. The other idea, which is only implied in Mark's piece, is that if TAG 839 would just get out of the way, and "release" animation writers from their jurisdiction, that everything would suddenly be roses and honey. I've had several writers insist that if the IA, our patent union, disavowed the writer jurisdiction, then the WGA would quickly take over that jurisdiction, and they'd be treated on a par with live-action and some prime-time animation writers. Oh really? There are two major problems with this fantasy. First, it's not up to TAG or the IA to give up the jurisdiction. We cannot make a unilateral decision to no longer cover writers. At our next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiation in three years, we could propose exactly that. But the rub is that the producers would have to agree. These are the same producers who haven't given an inch to the WGA in years and years, and somehow they're going to go along with this plan? Secondly, let's imagine an alternate universe, just like ours, but where animation writers are suddenly out of the jurisdiction of TAG 839. What would then happen? Of course, membership in the WGA wouldn't be automatic, would it? No, the writers would have to sign cards, the WGA would have to get the studios to recognize those cards, and then the WGA have to negotiate the contracts. Simple, right? But if it's so simple, then why is it that the WGA reportedly has over a thousand rep cards from reality show writers and editors, and to my knowledge they haven't got any studios to recognize them or sign contracts? Why is it that the WGA had rep cards from writers and board artists at Nick and, after making a big show of things, walked away without ever even getting the cards officially recognized? Perhaps here's the reason: I understand that in the past DIC writers tried to organize under the WGA. To avoid the possibility that the writers would unionize, DIC simply made all the writers freelance. The case went to the National Labor Relations Board, and DIC prevailed. So the NLRB has already ruled that writers can be treated as independent contractors, which means that if a studio chooses to hire writers in that way, those writers have no right to organize. We've been told by a Warner's exec that, if the day ever came that WB no longer had a TAG contract that covered animation writers, they would do exactly the same thing. Which, given the budgets of most animation productions these days, sounds pretty realistic. There's a well known principle in labor contract negotiations that you can get too much from management. I was reading an article that SAG went though that not so long ago with animation voice work. They got a contract that was a little too sweet, and suddenly massive amounts of voice work was going to Canada. So this really isn't a battle between the WGA and TAG at all. It is not an "either/or" situation regarding two unions. It's actually a choice of having minimums/pensions/health, or not having them. This focus on "TAG v. WGA" is a straw-man argument that ultimately distracts from the real work of organizing the unorganized. That real work involves negotiating contracts that get people decent pay and benefits without driving work underground or out of town. That is where we have decided to focus our efforts. Oh, one last quibble with Mark's post. Referring to TAG, he says that "...the writers seem to not get much attention and too many of their needs go unaddressed." Two CBA negotiations ago our negotiating committee was made up primarily of writers, and they set the agenda for those negotiations. At the next negotiations, we had two writers on the committee, and we put forth more writer-specific proposals than any other job category. In the last negotiations, our vice president Earl Kress championed, very successfully, several writer's issues, resulting in major bump-ups for writer's pay and benefits. In those last three contracts, while our overall contract got nice gains, the writers got the biggest gains. Ours is a "polyglot" union. The idea that we represent two mutually exclusive groups, artists and writers, is nonsense. Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of animation production knows that the needs and skillsets vary dramatically among the many job categories we represent. We cover theatrical, cable TV, and network TV, and shorts. We cover CG, hand-drawn, and Flash. Look through a list of our job classifications, and the only real commonality you will see is that each group is creative in their own way, and together we all create animation. I'm proud of TAG's contribution to the field. If there are things we are doing, or not doing, that could be improved, then get involved and help make things better. But lets keep those efforts rooted in reality, and not in fantasy.
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