Friday, July 31, 2009

Emeryville Protest

As I've said before, Pixar isn't really a union-friendly type place.

Adopting the robot janitor character from the Disney/Pixar movie "WALL-E" as their poster child, a group of janitors laid off from Pixar Animation Studios protested today outside Pixar's Emeryville headquarters.

Nine out of a staff of 21 janitors were laid off in January when Pixar entered into contract with a new janitorial firm, Preferred Building Services Inc., which has offices in San Francisco.

"As soon as they switched, they laid off the workers, took away health care benefits for the remaining ones and left them making $9.25 an hour," said Sylvia Ruiz, political director for Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West ...

My understanding is that Pixar dropped a union janitorial service for a cheaper, non-union outfit.  If true, the janitors aren't technically Pixar employees. Even so:

"I was working at Disney's in 1960, working on Pollyanna and some other shows, when a publicist that had been brought in to develop campaigns for The Parent Trap, and new to the studio, walked out of the commissary one lunchtime and started yelling at a gardener who was kneeling down planting flowers. The gardener was blocking the publicist's path, and the publicist wasn't happy."

So an hour later, the guy gets a call to come up to Walt's office right away. He's ushered in, and Disney is there and he chews him out: "I've gotten a report you yelled at one of my gardeners. The man's been working here for twenty years. I don't want to hear about you yelling at him again, or you won't be working here ..."

The above was told me by a grizzled old publicist several years ago, and the gent was still amazed that Disney knew about the gardener abuse and took the time to do something about it.

Different times, different values, and different management.

Add On: But since were on the general subject of belt-tightening, the Nikkster opines: "Where is Bob Iger's 26% pay cut?"

Got me.


Anonymous said...

How are the two events related? If a publicist were to walk into a janitor in the Pixar atrium then yell and make a scene at the janitor for getting in his way, that publicist would get the same reprimand (although maybe not from Catmull). That is NOT how Pixar works and is not the atmosphere it promotes.

We have no idea what the janitor's work efficiency was. Maybe they were the best janitors in the world or maybe they were slacking off on their job and were doing poorly. Regardless, the janitors losing their jobs was a cost effective business decision (in a recession), and one that has been happening in the world of business for centuries. Doesn't make it "right", but it isn't uncommon in this or any other industry.

The only reason it is brought up here is because the janitors were part of a union. If a group of non-union cooks were let go to hire a new non-union catering service I doubt it would make the news here.

Anonymous said...

Cripes. Taking away health benefits is horrific. There's no way folks making $9.25/hour can pay for a medical crisis out-of-pocket.

If any of the janitors have pre-existing conditions, they won't be able to purchase private health insurance, either.

That is so harsh.


Anonymous said...

I love how 'the recession' is a cover-all excuse for nasty business practices. Let's ignore the fact that Pixar has one of their most successful films ever in theaters right now, and that they're raking in money hand over fist.

You can tell a lot about a company by how they treat their weakest.

Anonymous said...

"Let's ignore the fact that Pixar has one of their most successful films ever in theaters right now, and that they're raking in money hand over fist"

This change occurred in January in the middle of the recession, 5 months before Up was released and during the time analysts were saying Up would be a failure. Once Up was a success Pixar was already in contract with the new company so they couldn't break it and rehire the fired janitors or that would be a "nasty business practice".

As for "nasty business practices", how do you know it wasn't the new janitorial service that spearheaded the event? When I worked in Berkeley we received a rep from a different Bay Area janitorial service nearly every week asking how much we currently paid and offering us a better price if they could afford to. And during those years we did change services occasionally and got better deals (and better service) out of it. Were we a company committing a "nasty business practice"?

Businesses cut costs all the time and people lose jobs. It is sad but it is a reality whether you are in a union or not.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you wrote:

"Different times, different values, and different management."


All I can say to the present Disney/Pixar leadership is :


(remember ?)

"My understanding is that Pixar dropped a union janitorial service for a cheaper, non-union outfit. "


Well, yeah, that fits: can't very well continue to deny union benefits to your artistic staff when even the janitors are union. Non-union (lower-paid) janitors fit in better with the Pixar culture.

Steve Hulett said...

How are the two events related?

Uh ... how the least among us are treated? 1960, 2009?

Union isn't the issue here. Health benefits and wages are.

Anonymous said...

"Uh ... how the least among us are treated? 1960, 2009?"

But they are unrelated events based only the information you presented.

Your first example is an anecdote showing the reprimand of an employee who's misconduct affected internal morale and company culture. Your second example shows a business releasing contractors after signing a new contract with a different company. The two events are not mutually exclusive. Do you know what the benefits and wages of the gardener in 1960 were? Do you know if the gardener was released and replaced with another gardener a year later?

Publicly humiliating a co-worker or contractor for inconveniencing you, whether they are beneath you or not, is not tolerated in most business, be it Disney in 1960 or Pixar in 2009.

Letting contractors go after signing a new contract with another company has been happening for decades, including the 1960's (and likely at Disney, although I have no examples at hand. TAG was willing to strike in 1969, so who knows how the companies were treating those beneath animators).

Anonymous said...

This struck me as funny.

"...middle of the recession..."

look out your window buddy, the politicians are only getting started. they plan to waste a lot more of your money.

Anonymous said...

I believe folks at Pixar are generally happy, if not you would hear from them or they wouldn't be there. And the Pixar product is probably all the better for it if its crew is happy.

I have no idea what caused the janitor service to change. But they seem to give thanks to everybody that is a part of the team in their credits.

Steve Hulett said...

TAG was willing to strike in 1969 ...

We struck Disney over runaway production in 1982 ... and lost, after ten weeks.

You don't think the two anecdotes are related, fine. But my point is this: low-level workers at two animation studios encountered different treatment at the hands of management.

Does one prove that Pixar management is awful? No. Does the other show that Walt Disney was a saint? No. Only that one was more indifferent -- in this instance -- than the other.

Did Pixar offer to retain the janitors at the same wages and benefits? Unh unh. And yeah, they were under no obligation to do so. "There's a recession on," and all that. Yada yada.

Pixar is a division of Disney, a company like other companies in 2009. They aren't a Renaissance workshop.

I was highlighting an article about disgruntled janitors with an anecdote. It's a blog post. Relax.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record:

This isn't a cartoon fan blog(although I feel sure mist of us are fans of animationas well as working in it), it's a UNION blog.

Really the posts could be limited to purely union business and the things that are in the Pegboard(Deaths, etc-btw I miss the watercooler/weddings news of years ago). That it's not is just gravy, but don't be bored or surprised when a union blog takes a union line and comments on
union business, even stuff that's a bit tangential to 839.

Anonymous said...

It astonishes me that people will defend Pixar on ANY subject - even treating janitorial staff poorly. Stop drinking the Kool Aid guys.

Anonymous said...

It astonishes me people still parrot that "Kool-Aid" thing as if it were devilishly clever.

Anonymous said...

Hey I like the Kool-Aid" remark...but please don't "throw me under the bus."

Anonymous said...

Don't tase' me bro.

Anonymous said...

I still think taking away the health insurance was a rotten thing to do.

Anonymous said...

9.25 in the bay area?



Is that even minimum wage in emeryville? san francisco has 9.79.

And cutting health benefits too.

Shame on this company.

Anonymous said...

Hey, come on! It's a cost-cutting measure!

And the artists up there are REALLY happy! Lots of anonymoust peeple here say so!

Who the hell cares about the broom pushers, anyway? Let them ear dust bunnies.

Anonymous said...

Pixar brass just watched "Sorcerer's Apprentice" and were stuck by just how powerful a well-organized group of broom pushers can be.

Brian Donahue said...

I'm a long time Emeryville resident and a fan of Pixar. Let's not kid ourselves though, ultimately, Pixar is like any other corporation for better or worse. What they're interested in is maximizing return for their investors. To assume anything less is to do Pixar a diservice. What they're interested in is maximizing profit and there's nothing wrong with that. We shouldn't see Pixar through rose colored glasses.

I'm just surprised they're willing to let their PR suffer so badly by their behavior regarding these janitors. It hurts Pixar tremedously for the public to see the labor strife at the main gate such as we have. I would have thought, given their reputation, Pixar would guard their their reputation better. This seems like ideology go the better of them.

Anonymous said...

What they're interested in is maximizing profit and there's nothing wrong with that.

Actually, there IS something wrong with that. Pixar has become a beloved company among many precisely because they have given the impression that they AREN'T primarily concerned about maximizing profit, and their leaders have repeatedly expressed contempt for other studios who seem to be more focused on the bottom line.

You can't have it both ways. Either the company is run by crass businessmen, whose only obligation is to shareholders and the bottom line, or the company is run by creative people who will make what seem like poor business decisions because they're committed to doing the 'right thing.' Either they're interested in fostering a safe, creative environment that, in the long run, harnesses employee loyalty to produce superior films, or they're trying to save a nickel here and there at the expense of employees.

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