Saturday, October 01, 2011

Union Benefits Benefitting Employers

Down below, a commenter offers:

... what I was looking for is what does it cost a studio to be union. I have worked at both union and non union and have enjoyed both. I do enjoy union more for the health benefits and the IAP but have enjoyed myself at non union shops as well as far as work goes. ...

In a nutshell, it costs union employers the wage rates in the TAG collective bargaining agreement, plus the cost of benefits. (Seven bucks an hour, give or take.)

Below, I expound on what union employers get in return, but first ...

... Here's a reality you might find surprising coming from a grizzled Business Agent: In the time I've done this, I've seen (some) pretty bad union studios and (some) pretty good non-union studios. One good non-union example:

Film Roman, in the first few years Phil Roman ran it.

Back in studio's early years, Phil's cartoon factory was located in Toluca Lake and producing Garfield. It offered nice benefits, good pay, and fairly relaxed working conditions. TAG attempted to organize the facility in 1991 and failed. (Phil ran the joint much the same way his long-time boss Bill Melendez -- of Bill Melendez Productions -- ran his union shop in Hollywood.)

Over time, however, Phil's studio got bigger, Phil took the FR stock public and then lost control of the place. And working conditions, pay and benefits got crappier. Ultimately, Film Roman employees had enough of the deteriorating workplace conditions and organized the studio under an Animation Guild contract.

I've seen non-union studios that paid as well (and sometimes better) than non-union studios. Generally their benefits packages were comparable or only slightly worse than union places. Occasionally non-union shops offered a generous array of benefits to "permanent staff," while production hires got a minimalist health care package and little to no retirement benefits. (This was true of Sony Pictures Imageworks in its heyday.)

Now to answer the other part of the commenter's question, "What's the point of a union for the studio?" Here's a few:

1) Efficiencies of scale. The Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan has $5 billion and over 100,000 participants. On the Health Plan side, its size and money enable it to negotiate highly competitive health care rates for participants, something that a studio of 50 or 150 employees has no way of doing. And because it has billions in plan assets, it's able to hire the best financial advisors and legal talent available.

2) Access to a large, well-trained workforce. When Imagi set up shop in Sherman Oaks, it tried to recruit story artists from various big, union studios, but had few takers. One of their execs said to me: "We have to sign a contract with you, because we can't get the people we need without it ..." (This, frankly, is the strength of a lot of entertainment guilds. An employer wants to hire a SAG actor or WGA writer or DGA director, the need to sign a contract with the appropriate labor organization.)

3) Training programs. The Contract Services Administration Trust Fund provides block grants for training to employees of union shops, which offers skill boosts to union members in dozens of guilds every year. And a while back, TAG partnered with Disney to offer computer training to animation artists that went on for over two years. Today, the Animation Guild offers classes in various related crafts at its building in Burbank, as well as providing training DVDs from its growing library to any TAG member who needs them.

It's easy to forget in this corporatist age that the United States wasn't originally set up for the exclusive benefit of conglomerates and international corporations the size of France. The Wagner Act, also known as the Fair Labor Standards Act, was enacted seven decades ago to protect workers from corporate over-reach and give them an independent voice in the workplace. The Act has been muffled and subverted over the years, but I still think it's a commendable piece of legislation that continues to have meaning. It's also the reason TAG and other unions and guilds exist.


Steven Kaplan said...

Welcome home Mr. Hulett!

Anonymous said...

And brilliant post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

One other aspect of union health benefits that non-union employers don't have access to -- residuals.
About half of the union health benefits are paid for by the residuals generated by the films and TV shows union members work on. That allows union studios to offer better health benefits, at lower costs to themselves, than a non-union studio could ever hope to, since the non-union studios don't get a piece of the residuals pie.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, the enjoyment I found in working non- union has been the early process of inonvations in the industry, such as learning on a Cintiq, working in Flash and working with Stereo, at the early stages of these processes. It always felt refreshing, new and rewarding learning a new avenue and having new paths presented, but the union really has nothing to do with the choices the studios have chosen being johnny come late to the innovations in entertainment.

Anonymous said...

That's more a difference between small studio vs. large studio, rather than union vs. non-union.

Small studios can often be more nimble and artistically daring than large behemoths can.

Mike Wolf said...

While it is true that prior to going union, the health care benefits at Film Roman grew worse, less benefits, higher employee contributions. This was due to the spiraling health care costs and the artists were smart to opt for the better union benefits. But it is entirely disingenuous to suggest that work place conditions and pay were contributing factors. Film Roman was always a desirable place to work, and thanks in no small part to The Simpsons, Film Roman paid some of the highest rates in the industry. No one worked under scale.

Anonymous said...

I love my job working on The Simpsons, and am incredibly fortunate for the steady work it has given me. It's truly a blessing in this time of uncertainty. Although I never had the privilege of working at Film Roman during Phil's time, I've always enjoyed my time here, as well as the wonderful, talented people that surround me.

As a union studio now, every year of my employment is a year that helps me build a meaningful pension for retirement. This affords me a peace of mind I can't find at a non-union studio. Personally, this was my biggest motivator to vote "union, yes". Of course, everyone who voted yes had their own reasons for doing so.

Pay was definitely one of the reasons out there. I will just have to disagree with my esteemed friend Mr. Wolf on the assertion that no one worked under scale. At the time, we conducted a survey of the artists to increase our knowledge of the situation. While some positions were definitely paid at or above scale, it's just not correct to say everybody was.

TotalD said...

I have always wanted to be back in the union, I took jobs that paid equivalent but there weren't many here jobs let alone union jobs. Nice to be back.

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