Wednesday, April 20, 2011


A commenter observes:

"Particularly if those artists have the right skill sets." [quoting Hulett]

Ah, the old meritocracy canard. I wonder what your reaction would have been if someone had said that to you during the period of your career that you were out of work.

What do skill sets have to do with union signatory studios sending skilled work overseas that had previously been done in house, or "laundering" their work through boutique studios as piecework to evade paying full CBA contract wages.

Funny, but I was replaced by a twenty-two-year-old novice when I was thirty-seven. What did I say? Not much. But I wasted way too much time being ticked about it, when I should have gotten off my butt and moved on with my life.

I don't for a minute think that jobs in animation ... or Planet Earth ... rest on merit and ability. Sometimes they do, but many times they don't. Everybody knows the director's buddy who gets hired with thin resume and thinner talent, the relative who gets brought on, the production assistant the boss takes a shine to (or is sleeping with) who gets promoted overnight to production manager. Nepotism, cronyism and plain old raw politics have been around since the court eunuchs were currying the emperor's favor and double-crossing each other in Mesopotamia in 20,000 B.C. I'm not anticipating that those three pillars will be crumbling much before 20,000 A.D.

Anybody who thinks the workplace is some kind of pristine meritocracy is a fool. But the person believing that merit counts for nothing is a bigger fool. The lessons I learned long ago are:

1) There is seldom "what's fair," but always "what is."

2) Over time, studios continue and expand those business practices they believe enhance their profits and cash flow. (And sometimes they're wrong. And sometimes they lie about what they're doing, even as they're being wrong.)

3) In the work place (as in other locations), individuals get those things they have the energy and leverage to get.

Please don't think for a minute that I like the above. God knows I have walked plenty of precincts and voted for plenty of losing candidates, being a little too starry-eyed for my own good. It's good to have a dash of idealism, but even better to have a healthy dose of classical cynicism. Otherwise you will cry yourself to sleep an awful lot of nights when things don't go the way you hope and anticipate. One of the certainties you can expect from your future is that the career you dreamed of at twenty-four will not be the work history you'll look back on when you're baby-sitting the grandchildren.

I wish that everyone could have the jobs they believe they deserve, truly I do. I also wish that conglomerates were more charitable, that peace reigned in all corners of the globe, and every upright mammal hooked up with his or her soul-mate. Unfortunately, wishing ain't getting. (I and a lot of other TAG members learned that life lesson when we picketed against runaway production during a ten-week strike and came away empty-handed. Sometimes life is less than ideal. We still have to learn how to deal with it.)


Anonymous said...

I think most people understand things as they are, Steve, but what people look for in a leader is someone who has the vision and ability to change things to better reflect how things should be. As a leader of an animation union keeping the status quo and making commentaries on what the current situation is, does little to overcome the abuses and advance the well being of those you represent.

It seems like most of the way you address complaints is to explain why things are the way they are from the "conglomerates" viewpoint, instead of actually doing something about it. You talk about leverage. With the massive success of animation in the past decade and the money it's making, the actual animation artists have more leverage now then they ever have, but without a leader to galvanize and mobilize that leverage, it's being wasted. Why not look into the profits that these companies are making from animation and demand a bigger slice of the pie for the people who created it? We all know the most powerful way to use leverage is collectively, and that's the purpose of the animation guild right?

If you want to help and lead the artists you represent, why not do some work to better their working conditions? Why not do some investigation and find out how deep the collusion runs among the big players in the Southern Californian animation community? Expose the illegal and harmful practices of the "conglomerates" and things might change. If you want to lead the people you represent, then do something, if you just want to comment on the current situation and the "lessons you've learned" go be a journalist for a trade magazine.

Anonymous said...


Steve Hulett said...

I think most people understand things as they are, Steve, but what people look for in a leader is someone who has the vision and ability to change things to better reflect how things should be. ...

What changes the status quo is collective power. Which is why I visit studios daily and do phone outreach, why I write here.

I'm working to foster member participation ... in a whole LOT of areas. If members don't come to membership meetings and participate, or report workplace abuses, step up and file grievances when their contractual rights are being violated, demonstrate at labor events, VOTE for candidates who further workers' rights (etc.), then we're all less effective.

A little insight into my day: Besides the running around, I handle a steady flow of grievances. (I wrapped one up yesterday, after several e-mail exchanges with management.)

But here's the rub: The member wasn't sure that he wanted to file a grievance. He didn't want to get in political trouble. He wanted to take it one step at a time, talking to his supervisor first, and so I strategized with him, taking it slow.

Ultimately he elected to push forward, and we got a satisfactory result. But lots of times, people who call don't want to file a grievance, even when I urge them to, because they don't want to stick their necks out. So I take no action because I can't win a grievance without the member's cooperation.

Simple as that.

We get, on average, twenty to fifty people at membership meetings, out of 2500+ members. This has been the rule since I started coming to meetings in 1982... after seven years of not going, of not even knowing where the union building was.

What got me started coming to meetings? The union called a job-action, I walked out of Disney's onto a picket line, and after nine and a half weeks of walking back and forth in the summer heat, 839 lost the strike, and I returned to work with a much lighter wallet but a bit more knowledge than when I began.

And I decided to take the knowledge I'd gained and begin using it by participating in Local 839's affairs. I've been participating ever since, working to make a difference.

So per your suggestion I'll put on my leadership hat here and exhort everyone to get involved. You want a stronger union? You don't like the way things are going? Show up at meetings. Cast ballots. Write letters and comments on blogs. (Maybe even using your actual name.) Tell us what proposals you want in the next contract negotiation, then volunteer to serve on the committee.

(I've had this kind of back and forth here before, by the way. Some anonymous poster claims to be a member with lots of ideas, and I urge him to call me at 818-845-7500 so he can get involved.. To date, no calls, but I'm ever hopeful.)

If you want me to be a better leader, come out from behind your anonymity and show up at meetings. Kick in ideas. Kick my ass. Make the organization stronger with your presence and passion. Participate. Because with thirty-five people showing up, we probably aren't going real fast in the direction you claim to want.

Last thought: We've organized a bunch of studios in my time here, but not one of them has come under a union contract because of wonderful me standing outside on the sidewalk exercising my leadership. It's happened because people inside pushed and exhorted, handed out rep cards, and voted for a contract. There have been a few times that one artist inside made the unionization thing happen. One.

Because at the end of the day, it ain't the leadership. It's the focus, energy level and dedication of the membership. That's what makes leaderhip happen.

Zing zing.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely agree that membership is a problem, but it's also a reality that members don't want to stick their neck out and file against a company or industry on which their jobs are dependent. That's part of the reason so many people are anonymous on this board.

You want ideas, how about starting with investigating collusion between the SoCal studios. We know it happened up North, is it happening down south, how widespread? Find some recruiters, talk to former HR people, find out if collusion and price fixing is happening, there's evidence out there, then bring a suit against the participating parties. It's not in an artist's best interest to sue a company or industry they might need employment from in the future. An animation union, on the other hand can do this without repercussion, they should be the ones bringing the action.

I don't think it's a coincidence that salaries have stagnated, while demand and profits have increased for these animated films. None of the major studios want the late 90s to happen again, of course they would make deals with each other to prevent it.

Also, you have leverage, work to make contracts more equal, if a company can fire you at any time, demand that an employee can walk away anytime, or if they don't "need your services" before the contract ends, make them compensate you for the unfulfilled part of the contract. We have the leverage to make these contracts more fair. Make studios pay for storyboard tests. Make these studios compete for talent the way they compete for their executives.

Forget the zings man, sorry if I made it personal, part of it's frustration, part of it is how I really feel, the workers in the animation industry need better leaders.

Anonymous said...

And sorry for neglecting your efforts, this blog is great, it's raising awareness and spreading info to the people who need it, and I'm sure it's frustrating on your part seeing the problems that exist and the relative apathy from it's membership, I don't envy your position at all.

Steve Hulett said...

how about starting with investigating collusion between the SoCal studios. We know it happened up North, is it happening down south, how widespread?

Why do you think I visit studios five days a week?

To collect info.

Anonymous said...

Whoever you are leaving these very intelligent and well-thought-out comments: thank you. You put what I and a lot of members feel but can't express very well.

Steve, you have a bad habit for a business manager of taking these things too personally. "Zing zing"? Give that stuff a rest, please. The original commenter wasn't being flip or disrespectful at all. ALL his points are good ones, and he offers concrete ideas as well.

"Why do you think I visit studios five days a week?"

Collecting information from the same old faces you personally know, while breezing by 90% of the workforce at their desks (I know, I was one of these for years, trying to get your attention)is one thing. Using that information as that other person suggests is another.

Anonymous said...

I'm the original poster that you quoted. There is a lot of discussion here about collusion as it applies to the negotiation of top salaries. I'm not saying that that is not a valid issue, especially for the people that it effects directly, but having been around the block a few times, I see it as a double edged sword. It's just as likely that a studio, (corporation), would use the higher salaries as a justification to compensate for the "extra expense" by eliminating or exporting even more journeymen level positions as it would be that it would raise the level of all salaries.

The other problems are trickier. How do you fight the duplicity of major who signs a contract with the union, then evades the contract by feeding their productions out the back door to non-union "boutique studios?" ("At least we kept the work in America," they say). If what they are doing is technically legal, (if not ethical), how do you fight it?

Anonymous said...

What I have seen first hand in the CG dominated shop where I work is the destruction of the animation middle class. Animation supervisors and leads are much more enthusiastic about hiring first timers onto their teams than in the past(Yes, at least where I work, the animation sups and leads have final say about who is crewed to their show). It used to be that they wanted one or two first timers on their team but now they grab double handfuls of them leaving more experienced, but more costly animators, on the unemployment bench. When I asked why they did this I was told that "Animation is a meritocracy" and that these recent grads were hungry, did not have the entitlement issues that some more senior animators possess and often with a lil coaching were able to quality shot work. They did not mention "cheaper" but I am sure the productions are happy about the drop in their shot costs.

I've had more than a few animation sup's tell me flat out that they are getting the shot work they need out of these green animators. Yes - it might take a little longer but they can hire more of 'em and that balances the load to their satisfaction.

I am not sure how to battle this unless some sort of quota system comes into play. Is anyone else seeing this happen at their studio?

Steve Hulett said...

Let me point out one additional wrinkle.

TAG reviews a lot of O-1 visas. We're getting 2-5 per week, month in and month out. They're for studios and effects houses in California and New York. And wages vary widely, anywhere from fifty thou to a hundred and fifty thou per year. These salaries are for positions such as "animator," "model designer," "rigger" and the like.

So, if you're out of work, understand that there are artists and technicians coming into the States from all over the world.

(And before somebody comments: "Why don't you DING them, Hulett!? Keep them from coming in?" Understand that we have regulations to contend with, and if the immigrant worker meets the INS's criteria, there isn't one hell of a lot we can do about it.)

Anonymous said...

Apples and oranges, Steve. You're changing the subject. While bringing in highly paid specialists from overseas, may be annoying and frustrating for Americans trying to secure a niche in the CG industry, it's done for the sake of convenience and efficiency. Paying someone 150K is hardly economizing.

Address the issue: A studio, often part of a wealthy international corporation, negotiates and signs a contract with the union, then defies the agreement by deliberately planning non-union productions, with no practical justification or necessity other than saving money and cheating union members out of the salaries and benefits they guaranteed them by signing the contract. Is it a breech of contract? Is it breaking the law? Is it actionable? The studios obviously don't think so- they make no attempt to hide what they are doing.

Anonymous said...

To the above anonymous, Steve has talked before about how the 839 contract has allowed outsourcing since the union lost the strike in 1982 over that issue. The studios can also outsource within southern California if they pay the equivalent of union scale and benefits.

Let that sink in. There have been two strikes over the issue. In 1979 and 1982. We won the first, lost the second.

So the question is not 'What is Steve going to do about this?' The real question is, 'Is the TAG membership willing to strike again if our contract isn't changed in the next CBA negotiations?'

What do you think, anonymous? Are you and your working peers in TAG willing to strike over this?

Steve Hulett said...

Address the issue: A studio, often part of a wealthy international corporation, negotiates and signs a contract with the union, then defies the agreement by deliberately planning non-union productions, with no practical justification or necessity

Every entertainment union and guild is facing the dynamic you describe. (SAG fought Peter Jackson over the Hobbit shooting in New Zealnd ... and lost.) Every entertainment union and guild is on the fuzzy end of the popsicle stick.

As the commenter above says, multi-national conglomerates are going to run their businesses the way they want. TAG was probably the last Hollywood union to have outsourcing protections in its contract, and I walked the line for two and a half months to preserve it.

We ultimately lost. And hundreds of union members lost months of wages. But we gave it a shot.

And to answer your other question about outsourcing being actionable, the answer is no. Outsourcing in the movie industry has been going on since the medium was invented.

Anonymous said...

To 8:49,

As it happens, I participated in the 1979 strike, so spare me your patronization.

Outsourcing is one thing, but a major using union talent, HERE, is something else, again. It's ethically horrendous and IMO, a betrayal of spirit if not the letter of the contract. It makes a joke of the entire negotiation process.

Anonymous said...

Didn't mean to patronize you, but from my understanding of our TAG contract, the issue is clear. Studios can outsource locally as long as the pay the equivalent of 839 wages and benefits.

By the way, how is it you prefer outsourcing overseas to outsourcing to the local animation community? In the former, our jobs in LA are completely gone, and the studio pays a much smaller amount. In the latter, at least someone here gets the work, and if the contract is being honored they're getting a living wage.

Anonymous said...

"Studios can outsource locally as long as the pay the equivalent of 839 wages and benefits."

Excuse me, whatever gave you the impression that they were doing that? They have been paying no wages and no benefits. It's piecework. You are probably confusing it with freelance work on a union production.

"...As long as.." implies that there is some kind of supervision or enforcement going on on the union's part. There is not.

" is it you prefer outsourcing overseas...?" I certainly don't. The point is that the studios rationalize outsourcing under the premise that the work is relatively unskilled. When they hire 839 talent, the implication is that they want our skills and expertise but don't want to pay for it. That's exploitation and cheating the contract.

Anonymous said...

They have been paying no wages and no benefits.

So you claim people are working for free?

Look, no matter how you slice it, people need to notify the union if they're being asked to work for non-union money on a union project. There is no way, regardless of any contract language, that the TAG staff can police it otherwise.

You're another person who want's Steve Hulett to protect people from themselves. He can't do it. When people accept jobs that don't pay a living wage, and they keep that information to themselves, then no union anywhere is going to be able to help them.

Steve Hulett said...

"Studios can outsource locally as long as the pay the equivalent of 839 wages and benefits."

Excuse me, whatever gave you the impression that they were doing that? They have been paying no wages and no benefits. It's piecework. You are probably confusing it with freelance work on a union production.

Don't assume because, say, Time-Warner or the Disney Co. are doing animation through one of their subsidiaries, that it's union work.

Time-Warner, for instance, has done animated product through TW divisions with which TAG has no contracts, so there is no obligation, real or implied, for them to pay union wages in the county of Los Angeles. (The same applies to the Disney Co.)

Is this fair? I don't think so, but it's the situation with which we're faced. We live in a corporatist age and we have to deal with the realities on the ground as we find them. Whining that it's not fair gets us nowhere.

So. What's the solution? We have to go out and organize the work under a TAG contract. Please know that TAG strives to do just that Monday through Friday. It's one of the things I work on every day. It's Steve Kaplan's prime focus. Hopefully, TAG members will sign cards to assist us in bringing this work under contract.

Anonymous said...

Add Sony to that list.

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