Animation World Magazine, Issue 3.4, July 1998
The Hollywood Animation Union (M.P.S.C. #839)
by Tom Sito
Anyone who is a fan of Hollywood knows there are big gaps between the official record and the hidden realities of Hollywood. But it's not just details of some movie star's sex habits or scandal that are glossed over, the fact that Hollywood artists formed labor unions to protect themselves from the power of movie studios and their corporate overlords is treated as non-history by the media. That Groucho Marx, Frank Capra, Joan Crawford, Dorothy Parker and Boris Karloff worked tirelessly to build Hollywood's unions is rarely mentioned in their biographies.
Likewise in Toontown. Crack open any animation history book and see if they mention that Chuck Jones walked a picket line, or that Maurice Noble, Bill Tytla, Art Babbitt, John Hubley, Selby Kelly and Bill Melendez risked their careers to create an animator's union. The animators of Max Fleischer formed their union in 1937. The Hollywood artists won their recognition in 1941. Jack Zander, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson, Dave Tendlar and Bill Scott all once served as union officers.
Animators in Florida are represented by Screen Cartoonists Local 843, in Paris by the Syndicat National des Techniciens Cinematographique, in London by BECTA, in San Francisco by Local #16 and in Winnipeg by Local #832. Animation unions at one time also existed in Chicago, Minneapolis and New York.
The M.P.S.C. headquarters are located at 4729 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, California. Photo courtesy of M.P.S.C.
Today Hollywood animation artists and techs are represented by the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonist's & Affiliated Optical Electronic & Graphic Arts Local #839. It was formed in 1952 and it's first signatories included top Disney artists like John Hench and Nine Old Men Les Clark and Milt Kahl. Today the M.P.S.C. is 3,000 strong, counting among its members the animators of Walt Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., MGM, Hanna-Barbera, Rich, Hyperion and many more.
Before 1941, salaries were a free for all, anywhere from U.S. $6.00 to $500 a week, and Saturdays were a mandatory work day. The M.P.S.C. guarantees basic working conditions, wage minimums and overtime after 40 hours per week rules. The union also arbitrates disputes artists can have with their employer and provides free legal advice. Some bosses accuse the union of inhibiting creative freedom; but the union takes no position on aesthetics. It's only purpose is to safeguard the working conditions of artists.
The M.P.S.C. publishes current information on wages and personal contracts so an artist is not negotiating blind, okay's visas and helps unemployed members find work
The sorry state of the American health system is well known. The M.P.S.C. provides some of the best health insurance in California -- the Motion Picture Health and Welfare plan. It provides major medical, dental, optometric, pharmaceutical, chiropractic and acupuncture coverage. The plan covers same-sex couples, cannot refuse you if you have a pre-existing condition like diabetes or cancer and follows you from job to job for up to one and one-half years after you leave the industry. Best of all, while in many U.S. companies money is deducted from your paycheck to pay for your health insurance, in this plan the employer contributes and your pay is unaffected.
The M.P.S.C. is also the guardian of the old age pensions of animation folks. The popular myth that animators keep drawing into their 90s or become rich from Disney stock is only true for a tiny percentage. The great majority of animation artists eventually reach an age where their energy or creative powers have diminished, or they just don't want to compete anymore with the ever growing crowd of young, eager talent. The hard reality is with the exception of Walt Disney Studios, a union studio, no animation studio has ever stayed around long enough for an artist to retire from. No one ever retired from UPA or MGM. Without our union pension fund, many Golden Age animation artists would have no recourse in their sunset years.
In addition, the M.P.S.C. has added a multi-employer 401k plan, an additional way that members can save towards their retirement and take out interest-free loans on their account.
The M.P.S.C. throws it's support to political issues like making common cause with the National Cartoonist's Society and the Writers Guild to oppose a California law that forces freelance artists to pay business taxes. They also have supported historical preservation groups like Hollywood Heritage to preserve animation landmark buildings like Hanna-Barbera's old headquarters at 3400 Cahuenga Blvd.
One of the most popular services the M.P.S.C. provides is the American Animation Institute. It was formed in 1980 to further the retraining of our members and to provide a low cost way new talent could get animation training. All of the A.A.I.'s teachers are current working professionals who drive to the classroom directly from their studios. Past lecturers include Milt Kahl, Art Babbitt and Cliff Nordberg. The renowned drawing teachers Glenn Vilppu and Karl Gnass conduct workshops at A.A.I. as well. The classes cost in the range of $80-$100.
The A.A.I. offers classes in character animation, inbetweening and cleanup, life drawing, background and figure painting, storyboarding and character design. Most classes are at night but some weekend workshops exist as well. You don't have to pay for a full semester of classes like a degree program; you pay on a class by class basis. The A.A.I. is considered adult education and is a non-accredited school. Classes begin with a three week required seminar called "Introduction to the Industry."
There are two enrollment periods, one in the spring and one in the fall. Sometimes there is a waiting list to enroll and a class could close out before you have a chance to apply. When the A.A.I. was started the total student enrollment was around 40. With the current boom in animation 750 students enrolling with dozens more being turned away or put on a waiting list is not uncommon. The union office staff is small and they must cover union issues as well as A.A.I., so please be patient.
To reach the union office with questions or if you wish an A.A.I. catalog mailed to you call (818)-766-7151. The A.A.I. reservations only number is (818)766-7746. The M.P.S.C. 839 is located at 4729 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91602-1864. The fax number is 818-506-4805. AWN has links to our web site through the Animation Village.
Finally what does this have to do with the love of cartoons? Nothing and everything. In a perfect world there would be no need for unions because everyone would get their fair share. The last time I looked, this wasn't yet a perfect world. Isn't talent enough? History has proven it isn't. Most businessmen who invest in animation love the medium as much as the artists do. However, the M.P.S.C. was created to guard against those who are just seeking a quick buck or stepping up on the necks of others; those who consider animators just `wrists' and naive children. That is our Satyagraha.
The Irish patriot John Curran said in 1815, "It is the common fate of the Indolent to see their rights become prey to the Active. The condition upon which God hath given us Liberty is eternal Vigilance." That quote was not given to me by my college professor but by the late Bill Scott, animation writer, director and voice of Bullwinkle the Moose, who was also a passionate union activist.
At the National Cartoonists Society annual meeting, we were addressed by Joanne Schuster, the widow of Superman co-creator Joe Schuster and the model for Lois Lane. Siegel and Schuster were the two 19 year-olds who sold away their creation, Superman, for $130 and never saw any of the tens of millions of dollars profit their creation made. In 1978, blind and indolent, they received pensions only after public protests by united cartoonists. Mrs. Schuster told us, "All artists should stick together because only then do you have real power!"
Let the love of animation guide our hearts but not cloud our minds to the realities of modern business.
Tom Sito is a 20-year animation veteran and teacher who's credits include He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Prince of Egypt and Paulie. He was elected president of the animator's union M.P.S.C. 839 in 1992 and has served in that capacity ever since.
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