Monday, December 10, 2007
New York City Animation and the Ghosts of Union Past
Once upon a time New York City animation was unionized. By the early 1980s, the union’s membership and influence waned as the local industry shrank and independent studios accepted low paying (below union scale) animation work from clients such as Sesame Street as a means of survival. Thankfully, animation in the big apple proved far more resilient than the union that sought to protect its member’s interests. However, recent events in NYC animation, such as the erratic behavior of specific studios, the sudden layoff of a whole crew at AniMagic, and the vanishing benefits package at MTV networks, have got some folks whispering about how a union might play into the whole mix. I don’t claim to have the answer to this question, although many are of the opinion that a union would send work away from NYC as well as threaten the existence of small independent studios.
I’ve often believed that there’s a circumstantial problem in this business that helps create conditions that make some desire to unionize. Firstly, each year, there’s a new batch of students bursting out of the animation schools. In NYC, alone, I’d estimate the animation grads per year to be around 110 individuals. The new trend is for studios/companies to “hire” these students as interns. Unpaid interns. Maybe this is similar to the old days of the apprenticeship system, but I don’t think so. An intern is someone still in school, helping out a few days a week at a company, in exchange for school credit, experience, and contacts. Secondly, animation artists, in their first few years in the business, have fewer family obligations and often consider a studio to be their new fraternal order or clubhouse. In such a way, the sacrifices they make by working unpaid evening and weekend hours seem less painful. Things get further complicated because this group often feels (and rightly so) that they are still paying dues. In addition, they have a natural fear about losing their jobs, while at the same time, feel grateful to be employed in their industry of choice.
While this is a non-union animation town, it doesn’t mean that class action can’t be utilized. I worked on a series for a big network where, initially, there were no benefits or ergonomic equipment. The staff rallied together and meetings were held with producers and network representatives. In the end, the staff won all their victories, even causing conditions to improve at large rival studios that were then forced to up the ante of their own employee offerings. In a lesser (but, still notable) action, the same crew successfully petitioned their director for better tech service to their computers, each artist signing their names to a petition.
But, crews do not always come together in the right way, for the greater good of each other. Sometimes they come together simply to lick each other’s wounds. In this scenario, everyone rallies around each other to soldier on, in spite of all kinds of abuses such as mandatory late hours and weekend work without pay, arbitrary firings, demotions, and harassment. I don’t trust that people will always have the confidence and leadership to tackle these issues on their own. I suppose the argument is; should they even have to? I merely ask the question and open the floor for discussion. For those wishing to learn more about the history of the animation union in the USA, I recommend Tom Sito’s book, Drawing the Line, although his honest retelling of union battles fought and lost, sometimes help make the case against the union.