Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Nickelodeon Walk-Through

This afternoon (meaning Monday afternoon) I wandered around Nickelodeon, the Viacom Studio on Oliver Avenue in Burbank...

The studio is bringing back staff to the main building after a slow patch; I'm informed that three series will be announced in the next month or two, but nobody wants to give me titles yet. But it's good news that people who've had lengthy layoffs are beginning to filter back.

The question: "How did Nick get signed to a contract?" came up in a comment yesterday. I answer below:

(One of TAG's picket lines in front of Nick , a long time ago. Way back then, it got us nothing.)

Nickelodeon Cartoon Studios actually goes back a ways. In the early nineties, Nick was housed in The Motion Picture Industry Health and Pension Plan building on Ventura Boulevard. They were non-union then, and I complained about the union pension plan renting Nick space. The Health and Pension Plans paid me no attention (some things never change.)

A while later, Nick expanded, eventually settling into a large facility in Burbank. TAG mounted a large picket party on the night the studio moved into their building. They paid us little attention. We then had a few daytime pickets. They continued to pay us little attention. (This "paying attention" thing is a continuing theme...)

We next collected a mess of representation cards but not enough to give TAG a majority of the employees.

Time passed. Nick continued to be a non-signator studio. And then one day the Writers Guild of America west called and said it was working to organize writers and board artists, and would we like to partner up and organize the other artists. Since nothing much was happening from our end, we said "sure, why not?" ANd we went out with the Writers Guild to leaflet and hand out cards in front of the studio.

More time passed. The new organizing drive with the WGAw seemed to be going to the same destination our earlier effort had gone: Nowhere. The WGAw took out ads, filed Labor Board charges against Nick/Viacom which the company reciprocated, and held a mock election in front of the studio. The WGAw won the mock election, but was not getting far with a real election. And a short time later, the head organizer for the WGAW told me: "We're dead in the water with this Nickelodeon thing. We're going to walk away from it."

As the WGAw walked, so did TAG. We moved on to other things. And eight months later, we were successful in organizing a small studio named Frederator (owned and operated by Fred Seibert, the former topkick of Hanna-Barbera.) At the time, Frederator was headquartered in Studio City on Ventura Boulevard, but two months after we negotiated a contract, it moved to 231 W. Olive Ave. in Burbank.

Which happened to be the address of Nickelodeon Cartoon Studios. (Mr. Seibert, it turned out, had a distribution deal with Viacom.)

I began visiting Nickelodeon, walking in past the reception desk, strolling to the rear corner of the building where Frederator's unit was housed. And strolling out again. Artists employed by Nick who I knew were surprised to see me inside a "non-union" company. (I was a little surprised to find myself there.) But over the next few weeks, they and I got used to it.

By and by, I started collecting representation cards. When I collected a pretty good pile of them, I called the IATSE -- TAG's mother international -- and told them what I was doing and that I intended to call the WGAw to clue it in to our new organizing attempt. The IA instructed me not to.

More time passed. We were closing in on a majority of rep cards when the head organizer of the WGAw called and asked why we were organizing everybody behind their backs. I reminded him of our eight-month-old conversation about the WGAw "walking away" from its organizing attempt. I said: "When does the statute of limitations run out?" He replied that the WGAw still had some legal actions pending.

TAG kept collecting cards. When we had a majority, Nick and the Animation Guild struck an agreement to have an outside arbitrator count them. When the aribtrator determined that TAG had a majority of rep cards, lawyers from Nick and Your Truly sat down and hammered out a collective bargaining agreement.

This happened in the Fall of 2002. There have been other Nick negotiations since. The most recent agreement was negotiated and ratified by the membership this past year.

The thing about organizing studios and negotiating collective bargaining agreements is, it's always sort of nerve-wracking. But you develop a thick skin over time, and a small ability to know where the kabuki theatre of negotiations is probably going. But it's never particularly easy.


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