First…let me say something upfront. This post is about the animation union. And my experiences and issues specifically with the animation union.
Everything I write in this post is the absolute truth. And based on my experiences with the union and the people that headed up the union- at that time.
I will however, in a sign of ‘good faith’, keep names out of this post. BUT a simple google search of the time spans I mention will obviously show you who exactly I’m referring to.
And I’ve mentioned my disdain for these people publicly in forums and social media before. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone that knows me.
Also: This post is not meant to try and sway anyone’s opinion pro or con of the animation union or unions in general.
If you love the animation union, awesome. Power to you. I don’t hold you in any less esteem for your positive view of it.
My post is nothing more than my actual and factual experiences with them.
Good on paper.
When I started at Cal-Arts in 1990, the industry was in the beginning of a massive boom time. And making themselves the most visible at that time was in fact…the animation guild. Signing new members up as fast as new animation talent was thrown into the work force.
It was an amazing time to be starting out as an animator in the industry.
The booming market. The incredible films in the pipeline! The rumors of new studios opening in the not so distant future!
It was electric!
And all of us in the animation industry were and are aware of the romantic history of the animation union. The tales of Art Babbit staring down Walt Disney. The industry coming together. Fighting back the big studio mentality.
And with so many of us being new to the studio scene…we were more than happy to know that we had someone on OUR side. In OUR corner. Fighting for US.
Or so the union pamphlets and newsletters led us to believe.
The union, on paper is a great thing. Here are some of the touted benefits:
-job-related health coverage
-Unions (allegedly) help protect employees from unjust dismissal through collective bargaining agreements (CBA). Because of this, most union employees cannot be fired without “just cause.” This is unlike many nonunion workers who are considered “at-will” employees and can be fired at any time for almost any reason.
– More job security (allegedly) and better working conditions.
-A union “representative” that will (allegedly) ‘work on your behalf’.
Ok. So those are some of the top tier things that the Union is said to do *for* you. IF….IF you are a part of a “Union”.
Note: make a mental bookmark #1 of this. As we’ll be coming back to it later on in the post.
The “Boom days” of the second golden age.
When I was hired out of school after my third year to be an animator, I was informed that I’d have to join the Union. It’s a requirement to work in the big studios. Or what’s called “union shops”.
I thought nothing about it really. Heard their story and was familiar with them.
So, join I did.
And of course in joining …you are paying union ‘dues’ to be a part of this elite club of sorts.
Those were amazing times! Booming to me seems almost an understatement. Studios literally fighting for talent. Scooping up people left and right.
We had lawyers. We had agents!!
Helping all of us navigate through the legalities of contracts, signing bonuses, benefits etc !
Imagine my surprise, fresh out of Cal-Arts and I have my own agent?? Whaaaaat????
Of course the union would keep us all informed on what’s happening around the industry.
What studios were hiring, what studios were starting up. What to expect down the pipeline from the union. Etc.
They would hold meetings that were presided over by the Union president as well as the union representative.
They’d have pizza and drinks for all of us. (side note: Pizza and drinks that WE the ‘members’ would actually be paying for…with the dues that we pay into the union.)
The meetings served mostly to mix and mingle. Share what they thought we needed to know about what the union is doing in the industry.
The union newsletter, the “Pegboard” came out regularly and served a similar purpose as the meetings did. As well as being a cheerleader of sorts for all of us as well as for itself.
And there was always talk and encouragement to go out and push the union line. Pass out union cards. Especially to the people working in non union shops. (I.E. television animation studios and commercial houses.)
The union rep would visit all the studios, and walk the halls. He would talk to us. Asking us how things were going and if we were being treated well.
It was pretty cool. It gave a great feeling that we were being looked after. A sense of security!
That is…until there wasn’t.
The Industry Crash
Around 1999(ish), things started to take a turn in the industry.
The films that had come out weren’t performing as well as needed. Or just flat out failing all together! Not that all of them were bad. Some were pretty damn good! One of which was a film I worked on..”Iron Giant”. But it bombed and bombed hard due to a lack of marketing on Warner Brothers part.
Studios were spooked. To put it mildly. Many of these studios saw the animation game as an easy ticket to quick profit.
Not really knowing how these things are done. And what needs to go into them to gain that success. Mistake after costly mistake was made. Which led to bomb after bomb.
Things slowed down. Jobs were being lost. And/or being sent over seas.
The big studios started cutting down on their staff. Which sent a lot of those folks into other avenues in the industry. Some went into storyboards. Many (such as myself) into tv animation.
It is in these times that I made the realization that the union, was only as strong and as the times allow them to be.
It was a very disillusioning moment to be sure. I would liken it to how Dorothy, tinman, scarecrow and the lion felt when the curtain is pulled away from the old man working the mechanisms that conjure up the ‘great wizard’.
Now…you could make the argument that it’s not fair to hold the union to blame for the industry going south. That is very very true.
But it is also very incorrect to hold them as the reason the industry was booming. Which is what many of us were doing. Which turned out to be equally wrong.
When things started to go south for the industry, my first negative encounter with the good folks at the union was when I found out that a portion of the ‘dues’ that we the members pay to the union, was going to political candidates.
Now….I don’t care what side of the aisle your on. I have a big issue with ANY of the money that we as members pay into the union going to any candidate of either and all political sides.
And I called the union rep to tell him just that.
The union rep told me that “we” as a group, vote on these things.
I…said that that doesn’t matter to me. If I..as an individual, have qualms about giving our hard earned dollars that are given to the union..to politicians..Whatever their stripe is..shouldn’t that be MY choice.
He of course said “no”.
I said: “then what you’re saying is that you are forcing us to
1) Pay dues.
2) Not have any say in how or where they go.
We couldn’t “opt out” if we disagreed as to where the money was going.
He (the union rep) said sweetly: “Of course you can opt out.”
“Really?” I replied. Rightfully confused.
“Steve”, he continued…”you have every right to opt out if you so chose. That’s entirely your choice to do so.”
I paused on the phone trying to make sense of what seemed like contradicting statements that he was telling me.
And then, of course…it became quite clear to me.
Me: “Aaaaaah. I get it now. You’re saying that we can opt out if we want. Correct?”
Union Rep: “Correct.” he replied.
Me: “…and I can work in the studios.”
Union Rep: “No.”
And therein lies the rub folks.
You CAN “opt out” if you choose to. You just have to forfeit working in the animation field almost all together.
Kind of an interesting little racket they have going on right? And by “Racket”…I mean RACKET (in the not too complementary sense of the word).
It’s like paying “protection money”. Only it doesn’t “protect” you from very much at all! As we will come to see later on in part 2.
Kinda sounds a little like 1930’s style of ‘protection’, doesn’t it?
The Demeaning and the vilifying
As the crash started, animation jobs were being thinned out and spread across the industry..many people were either laid off after their films wrapped, or saw the writing on the wall and left the big studios and went into the tv realm. Which were non-union shops.
The union was obviously well aware of this, and you then began to see articles pop up in the union newsletter the “Pegboard”. Articles about how terrible non union shops were. And how they hurt the industry. And how immoral they were. And how bad it was that so many people were working in them. And if YOU weren’t doing what you could to tow the union line and sign people up….well…boy howdy YOU were part of the problem.
Imagine that! Tons of artists laid off, scrambling for work, in an industry that now has a glut of people all fighting for the few jobs that are out there. And the union…has the gall to tell those people, who are doing what they can to pay their bills and feed their families…that THEY, are part of the problem.
Simply, because they are going into non union shops.
I was beside myself with anger. To say the least.
And I let it be known to the good folks at the “union”.
Calling yet again, that union rep and asking for clarification.
The line the rep gave me was the same old same old.
Non union shops bad. Low pay. Take advantage. No benefits. Send work overseas. Etc etc.
Now…again…bookmark #2 that last part of sending work overseas in your memory. This is going to be important later on.
My response to him was to not make people that are doing everything they can to survive in this industry feel like the bad guy.
We…certainly were not!
We were hard working veterans working and paying our dues in this industry (figuratively and monetarily) for years. And are deserving of a bit of respect rather than attack and scorn from this union.(THAT WE WERE PAYING DUES TO!!!)
Next: The Animation Union : Part Two! It gets worse…..