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Tom Sito, M.P.S.C. 839 President, Answers The Tough Questions

With all the hubbub recently in Los Angeles about artists being out of work, runaway productions and the well attended PBS affiliate station picket, Heather Kenyon sat down with Tom Sito to talk.

With all the hubbub recently in Los Angeles about artists being out of work, runaway productions and the well attended PBS affiliate station picket, a lot of questions and opinions have been in the air about M.P.S.C. Local 839 IATSE, the labor union for screen cartoonists, CGI artists and technicians in southern California. Animation World decided to sit down with Tom Sito, President of M.P.S.C. 839, and get the answers to some of those questions. Tom graciously responded

Tom Sito.

Heather Kenyon: How many members do you have in the Los Angeles area? Is the percentage of Union members who are out of work growing?

Tom Sito: M.P.S.C. 839 has about 3,000 members. In 1998 we had 2,770 reporting full employment, 350 retirees and some unemployed. This year the estimate is 1,700 employed. One thousand jobs gone and thats not counting the big layoffs at non-union studios like Fox-Phoenix. Despite all the hype about all the new projects many of our members complain its getting harder to find work.

HK: Is this the result of the normal "cycle" that animation goes through? The early to mid-nineties were heady times. Is this just a coming back to a more stable reality?

TS: I wouldnt call unemployment and despair "a more stable reality." The heads of the companies still make $454 to every one-dollar of ours, thats not in decline. Box office receipts are still at an all time high. But the orders from the Wall Street investors is to push production costs down. So since the suits wont cut their salaries and Silicon Graphics wont cut the price of workstations that only leaves Joe and Jill artist in the crosshairs. But it is true that the business is cyclical. I got into animation in 1975 when nobody thought wed ever have it good again. The older artists spoke of 1958 and 1983 as bad years.

HK: Do you think as the talent pool gets larger -- there are so many more schools now -- that it will be harder to convince studios to become Union?

TS: The talent pool is much bigger than years past so it is vital to reach students early and make them understand whats waiting for them out there. Sometimes schools can foster an unrealistic ideal that your artistic skills alone will make the businessmen bow down to you. Then when you get out in the real world you discover youre just a replaceable part to them. Some studios dont even call you an artist. You are a "creative," or "wrist," as in, "Ill put some wrists on that project." When I got out of school I was so passionate for animation I would have worked for nothing. And unfortunately there are plenty of businessmen out there who want to exploit that kind of naiveté.

HK: I hear from young animators just entering the business, "Why should I join the Union? I make more than some people at Union shops doing 'boards?"

TS: Think of our union as "Dont-Mess-With-My-Livelihood" insurance. We police the rates and conditions people work under and make sure everyone plays fair. If a studio cheats you or screws you, do you think youll get anything from suing an entire corporation? Fat chance. Thats when we go to war for you.

Without unions studios recently have closed owing their employees thousands of dollars; fired artists for having HIV; fired artists giving them ten seconds notice instead of two weeks. And without a union all you can do is cry in your beer.

Our union takes care of artists who have retired after 50 years in the business. Think youll still be in that same studio 50 years from now? No studio has been around that long except Disney. Think youll still be drawing as well 50 years from now? Odds are you wont. After you blow all your money on snowboards and Pokémon who will take care of your wrinkled old butt? Only the union will be there for you.

HK: Why are studios resistant to becoming Union shops? A lot of them are already paying their artists top dollar, so what's the hang up?

TS: In the desire to keep unions away, studios have boosted salaries and created rinky-tinky health plans to the point where they seem indistinguishable from the union plans. What these studios hate and fear is artists having a real democratic voice in the running of their careers, not just some granted, "Lets go for a beer with the boss," time. Companies are not democracies, unions are. One thing the IATSE signatories do is conduct audits of their books to make sure the workers arent getting cheated. And contrary to the perception most of these studios do have union contracts. The voice actors, musicians, editors, writers are all getting their union benefits. Only the poor dumb animator thinks hes his own man.

HK: Tom, people say, "It's a weak Union." What do you say to that?

TS: Ill say this union is only as strong as the effort animation artists will put into it. Do you think we have weekends off because of an act of Congress? No, before we unionized in 1941 every animator worked Saturdays for their weekly paycheck. Our union is the reason our Hollywood animation community has the highest standard of living in the Toon World. But its not a free ride. Dont expect me to get you everything your heart desires while you sleep. Look at the so-called strong unions like the Directors Guild. They have spokesmen like Robert Wise, Martin Scorcese and Barry Levinson. When the NBA Players Association negotiated Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippin and Shaq were there. Charles Barkley said: "Just because Im rich dont mean I cant support my union." If I had the biggest stars of animation beside me at the negotiating table think of all the good we could accomplish for us all.

HK: Our country is based on capitalism and we all support that as a good, workable system but it is difficult to compete sometimes when we know that governments in France, Canada and elsewhere support and draw production with programs, grants, tax breaks, etc. (There is also much more funding for independents elsewhere -- just look at the Oscar nominees.) Here, even our government sends work to the best bidder.

TS: I agree that it is difficult to compete with state subsidized film. This is true not just of foreign countries like Canada but other U.S. states like Texas, Illinois, New Mexico and New York that have film commissions that offer tax incentives. The State of California can pay out millions in subsidies to avocado growers but thinks Hollywood is doing fine with nothing.

I think studios in other countries should be aware that the reason large multinationals are wanting to deal with them is not because they won a Jury Prize at Varna or Annecy but because they want cheap quality. The more we all share information on budgets and salaries the less we can be used against each other. This way the Global Economy wont become the Global Plantation. Go to the M.P.S.C. link and look up our wage and salary rates. Your boss is getting the big Hollywood bucks so if you are being paid less than that you are being cheated.

HK: Animation is now a global industry with more competitors coming to the market place every year. When television animation went overseas it spawned the entire industry hence more jobs. But then direct to videos went overseas, now more 3D work is going overseas, and, with Fox's recent announcement, the bastion of feature animation is moving overseas too. Do you worry about the entire industry, or significant portions of it previously reserved for the U.S. work pool, moving overseas? Is this a new reality that US animators are going to have to learn to accept?

TS: First, lets be honest. Television animation going overseas spawned new jobs in Vietnam and China but it ruined the livelihoods of artists here in Los Angeles. Were not all rich from Disneystock here. Many ink & painters who were single mothers lost their careers. No one does articles about them.

That said, I dont think the entire industry will ever move overseas because in the end studios are uncomfortable having so little hands-on control of their investment. The stakes are too high and the chances of error too great. Thats why Fox moved Bluth from Dublin and Speilberg brought Amblin back from London. Plus, animatorshave always lived with the reality of a gypsy life. I have workedin New York, London, Toronto and almost Munich. To be an animator means at one time you will be working someplace other than your native town.

HK: Do you blame the companies? They have to make ends meet too

TS: No, of course not. The best relationship to have between union and management is a non-confrontational mutually beneficialpartnership. No company in L.A. has gone under just because they signed a deal with our union. The big studios have no beef with us and are very cooperative. DreamWorks signed up right away and when Ted Turner set up here he signed with no problem. Our experience is the studios that cry about membership the loudest may have the most to hide.

HK: Anything else you'd like to add?

TS: I was never a big union fanatic. I felt all the doubts and annoyance that many young artists who are reading this right now are feeling. But once in this job I saw the good that could be done when we all just stop our little hustles for a minute and try and speak with one voice. Our members asked for a 401k retirement plan that follows us from studio to studio -- we created it. They asked for same sex partners health benefits -- we got them. The digital animators and TDs hated the 80 hour work weeks -- we got them a 40 hour week.

When I became union president I was touched by the spirit of past union organizers like Chuck Jones, Maurice Noble, Bill Melendez, Bill Scott, Art Babbitt, Bill Hurtz, Sadie Bodin, John Hubley, Bill Littlejohn. They put their careers at risk not for more money or power, but to make a better life for all us artists. And those illustrious names prove that it doesnt make you less of a creative force to care about the business end of animation.

I know one day Ill leave this office and when I retire I want just that same sparkle in my eye that I saw in theirs. That twinkle says it was never just about money, it was that I made a difference, that I left Toon Town a better place than when I arrived.

Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Magazine.