Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tom Sito on Becoming a Union Top-Kick

Here's another dollop from Tom Sito's Drawing the Line... When I became an animator in 1975, I was not a supporter of any union. I was made to join because of the movie I had just been hired to work on. Richard Williams's "Raggedy Ann & Andy" was being done under a union closed-shop contract, so I paid the fees and pledged allediance to the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 841 New York of the International Alliance of Theatrical and St5age Employes of the Unites States and Canada, affiliated with the AFL-CIO. However, my heart was not in it. I thought the animators union was some kind of club of lesser artists who closed ranks to keep young people out of the business. They extorted dues out of me with threats of fines and dismissal. I never really understood what they did for me other than endless annoy the employer who had been nice enough to give me a chance in the firstplace. In monthly newsletters I saw photos of the overfed union bosses stuffed into ill-fitting suits, always smiling and shaking hands with one another. None of them seemed to have a neck. I read paragraph after paragraph of boring legal palaver about welfare benefits and old-age annuites. I thought, "What does all this have to do with making cartoons? Who needs a union? I am an artist, not a longshoreman. What do I need with employer-matched pension contributions?" It all seemed so bourgeois. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 1982, I had to walk a picket line for eight weeks in a citywide strike. After the strike, my savings dropped far enough that, for the first time, I needed a loan from my parents. I hated the whole idea of a union. I told myself, "If you're a good enough artist, you don't need a union to get work; you make your own deals." It wasn't until after years of being cheated, being laid off, and being assured I was part of a "family," then cheated and laid off some more, that I came to understand what my union was trying to do for me. I saw how important those defined benefits were to the older, ill artists who once were stars but now were slipping into genteel retirement. I had a gall-bladder operation that would have cost $60,000, but because of my union medical coverage, I paid only $175. One of the few union meetings I would bother to show up for was the triennial election of officers. After the Runaway Wars of 1982, I would go to meetings to make sure they didn't nominate some jerk whose career was going nowhere and thus wanted to be a union boss so he could lord it over his betters. By the time of the meeting in 1992, I had made a bit of a reputation for myself as a Disney animator. As I walked into the packed meeting, union officer Dave Teague whispered to me, "I want to nominate you for a place on the executive board." I told him, no, I didn't want the responsibility. Then layout artist Larry Eikelberry rose and with Dave nominated me for president. I was stunned. I never asked for such a thing, but I admit the honor of it struck my vanity. Being the kid in the school yard who was never picked for ball games, it felt good to be asked. Before you could say Jiminy Cricket, I had won the election. I was head of the largest benevolent organization of animation artists, writers, and technicians in the world. Me, the union-hating cycnic. Oh, well. Saint Augustine also had his doubts before conversion... This pretty much encapsulates a lot of animation artists' feelings about unions. It was certainly close to mine. When I started, I had no idea where the union offices were, and could have cared less. All the time I was growing up, my Disney-veteran father railed against the union. If he weren't already dead, me being the Animation Guild's business representative would probably kill him. It wasn't until I was plunged into the middle of a strike that I got serious about it.


Anonymous said...

Who the Hell wrote that? Don't believe anything he says!

Anonymous said...

I want to say for the record, that over the last twenty-six years I have never had my picture taken shaking hands with anyone.

Anonymous said...

Eight weeks out work?

You should see what a year out of work, losing your house and having no parents that can loan you money does to you. I'm not sure the Union has does anything for me except give me benefits which are greatly appreciated, but there's not much else to our union.

Senority? Guaranteed wages?

Studios pass vets up regularly by saying they're not "right" for the project. It's easy to do and we've all seen it happen. Honestly there is no strength at all in a union that can't strike or is afraid to strike. We have no power. Okay, sure you say we could strike if we want to. But we won't. People are too afraid to lose their jobs.

Where's our residuals? Seems Warner, and Disney, and Nickelodeon and Dreamworks all make scads of money from our fists and we run from job to job doing the horse and pony show hoping we'll get another three months of work.

If the studios don't like what we do what is to stop them from going overseas entirely? Nothing. Even feature is not immune to that possibility. So we tip-toe around the execs fearful for our jobs and our 'reputations'. We're like hostages that love what we do. In some ways I am sorry I became an animator because it is too much of a rollercoaster.

Unfortunately that's all I know how to do.

I'm glad for you Tom, you seem to have made yourself into a celebrity and that's good for you, but don't go sitting on your high horse and tell us the industry would be "oh so much better" with a Union.

It's just not true.

Kevin Koch said...

The union can't guarantee jobs (and has never pretended to). Some unions have tired to do that in the past -- and the result was that those industries ossified and faltered, with the resultant loss of huge numbers of jobs.

The union DOES provide guaranteed wages, in the form of minimums for all job positions. Lots of people earn more than the minimums, but lots of people are at the minimum. And lots of people at nonunion shops are well below those minimums.

We do have a weak seniority clause. Most members seem to want it to be weak (until they're the one with seniority who is not being rehired).

As for what keeps the studios from sending everything overseas? It's simple. It is NOT the wonderful generosity and benevolence of studios and producers. It is NOT because we tiptoe around and act like hostages. It's because the best talent in the world is here. That is the ONLY reason the work stays here. It's our skill and expertise and talent and hard work that keeps us working.

Of course, we could go back to a time without an animation union -- a time when NO ONE had retirement benefits or health benefits, when the majority of those in the industry didn't make enough to have even a lower-middle class lifestyle.

I'm sorry that things aren't going well for you right now, but the idea that the union isn't a hugely positive force in our industry is nonsense. No, the union doesn't create a worker's paradise. We don't guarantee a utopia. There are plenty of crummy parts to our industry. But we're still much better off than we would be without a union.

Anonymous said...

If you think things are bad now, imagine our situation without a union.

Corporate America is busily banging on the "strong unions" today and no one is immune.

I've heard the beefs and gripes for fifty years. Yet, a lot of what we all want in this business will never be realized because those in control won't allow it. Doesn't matter what business you're in, we're all getting hammered, and it ain't gonna change anytime soon.

The union is only a union – not the fairy godmother from Disney's Cinderella.

Steve Hulett said...

No talent guild gets jobs for its members. The members get jobs through networking and the quality of their work.

SAG has well over 80% of its members unemployed at any given time. The WGA doesn't seem able to get its middle-aged members jobs because it can't. And many of those members are now pushing an age-discrimination lawsuit against the studios.

The residuals IA members get have gone -- for the past 46 years -- into the International's benefits plans.

Floyd Norman is right. Unions are not the end-all and be-all. But they were never designed to be.

Anonymous said...

The point I am trying to make is that the Union is not what you say it is. Kevin, I don't believe that without one the studios would suddenly attack us. As you said yourselves, the best talent in the world is here. Perhaps I am wrong, I do belong to this Union and I do pay dues and I do get benefits from it but mostly it's due to the fact that the places I work are Union. I'm not saying the Union should get me a job Kevin. I want it to protect us. It can't do that.

Steve, SAG may have it's members out of work but they make residuals. It's a different animal. They also don't (at least in our industry) spend weeks workign on something, it's a four hour in/out deal so comparing us to them really isn't fair.

Floyd, most other companies and other genres of job are not the same in that you get a job and you stay working. It's really hard to fire someone in the accounting field or the business world. In factg it'as difficult anywhere. In animation all they have to do is wait the typical few months you work and then just not hire you again. The senority portfolio review is crap as I have seen people pass over portfolios because certain Heads don't like them because they stick up for themselves. I don't know about you but I have to worry every 3 months about a new job and whether or not I have pissed some 20 year-old P.A. off who will be a producer in 3 years. We as animators make millions of dollars for studios and yet we face homelessness each year. I know many who have lost their homes the last 4 years.

I am not saying that the Union is useless, it has a great benefit package and that is a true blessing... but you have to admit we're on an island and the shore is sinking yet big companies like Disney have more than enough cash to buy Pixar. I guess what I am saying is that if seniority is gone, without it the union is not much different that AETNA or Kaiser Permanente. And with the new benefit rules just sent out even that is changing in that we are more and more forced to use the Motion Picture facilities and less able to choose our own doctors. I imagine that is from pressure as well.

Kevin Koch said...

I made a long response to your post but Blogger ate it, so I'll skip all the rebuttal stuff and get to the point -- it sounds like you've hit a rough patch, and that your view of things has become extremely negative. That's a natural reaction, but you need to fight it. I mean that sincerely. If you expect the worst, that's exactly what you'll find. That kind of mind set is self reinforcing and self perpetuating, and ultimately self defeating.

Steve Hulett said...

Look, the motion picture business (live action or animation) is cruel, capricious and demanding. It's been that way for decades.

Seniority departed in the middle eighties. Through most of the nineties, nobody much cared because jobs were plentiful. But don't kid yourself. Seniority or not, it's always been rugged. Disney laid off eighty percent of its animation staff after "Sleeping Beauty." There were strong seniority rules then. Fat lot of good it did most of the crew. They were STILL gone.

The animation business has been a roller coaster since "Oswald" and "Popeye." And it hasn't changed much.

Anonymous said...

The union is a club for some, and a job for others.

Union work did nothing more then to give me and my family financial problems. It's no fun having no christmas.

I used to have excellent credit, it takes over ten years to get on top again. So I wonder if I should learn Maya.

As thay say, take care of number one. There's nobody better then you.

Anonymous said...

Have fun being lonely.

Kevin Koch said...

We made a choice early on to allow anonymous comments, in the interest of having as much discussion as possible. Unfortunately, that decision means people can make cryptic hit-and-run attacks. I do think the 6:48 AM comment at least has some entertainment value. I can see a new animated special: How the Union stole Christmas.

Steve K. said...

Since I am not officially a member I guess I really have no say at the Animation Guild. Maybe one day...

I would like to put forth a suggestion as far fetched as it might be. It might be time to get residuals for animators. Might be something to put on the table everytime those studio talks come up. If a voice actor can get residuals for doing a voice for a character, why not the animator? If union animators were able to get residuals, you may see tons of animators come out of the woodwork just to get in!

Kevin Koch said...

If you do some searchs on the blog, you'll find several posts about residuals, but I'll summarize some points here.

We DO get residuals. The IATSE (of which we're a local) gets a bigger chuck of residuals than either the DGA, the WGA, or SAG. It's just that our residuals go into our benefits, which is partly why we have great benefits at a time when most unions (including the ones I just named) are cutting eligibility.

Now, can we get individual residuals like the "glamor guilds"? Frankly, I don't think even a prolonged strike would win that battle. Let's briefly look at the history. Residuals were won by the entertainment unions in the late 50s/early 60s. In those days, if a union struck a studio, they could SHUT DOWN that studio. The studios HAD to negotiate. The unions had real leverage. Nowadays, every studio is owned by a huge conglomerate, and movies/TV/animation is a tiny fraction of their business. In a nutshell, they can weather any entertainment strike thrown at them if they really want to. You can see this in the failure of SAG and the WGA to get any bump ups in the residual structure for video/DVD. Next year those guilds may begin yet another strike on the subject, and I think it's going to end badly.

So while we'd love to have an even bigger piece of the residual pie than we already have, we're not willing to destroy our industry to try to get that.

Steve K. said...

Well, it's still good news that at least some residuals make it back in some form.

Things like that are good to know.

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