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Go Union? What are its Pro's and Cons?

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Go Union? What are its Pro's and Cons?

I was approached by a coworker about signing up, but I'm not sure what the Union thing is about.

This may sound like my dumb observation, but so far, I see its benefit as better pay and benefits for artists, and I also see a possible bad outcome which is MORE offshoring of jobs.

I'm new in the animation business, so I am not familiar with this "Union" thing.

Can someone explain this to me? I'd really appreciate it, thanks!


go to animation nation

they'll tell you all you want. and more!

Hey, MC, I'm president of the Animation Guild, and I'll be happy to answer questions. Are you in the LA area? If so, then it was us your friend was talking about the Guild.

First, a mention of the process, at least the way it works here in LA. You can't sign up for union representation as an individual. The majority of artists/animators at a given studio have to invite the union in. So step one in the process is for individuals to sign "representation cards" and send them to the Guild's office. These cards are simply indicators of employee interest in being represented by the union. The rep cards are nonbinding (i.e., you can change your mind later), and are good for 6 months, after which they expire. When the Guild office has enough valid rep cards (usually enough that we know at least half of the people in the studio have signed rep cards), then our business agent, Steve Hulett, approaches the studio.

It's important to note that these rep cards are STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL. Studio management will never see these cards. So there is no risk to signing a rep card if you keep it low key. Note that it's also illegal for a studio to sanction or fire an employee for union organizing activity, as long as it's done on the employee's own time (breaks, lunch, before and after work).

So, the biz agent goes to the studio and tells them the Guild has been requested to represent the employees in collective bargaining. Sometimes the studio will just start negotiating. It's generally a smooth process when that happens. Or the studio can have the Labor Relations Board get into the process, and they'll confirm that the Guild does indeed have a sufficient number of rep cards (they'll get a list of employees from the studio, and compare it to the actual cards). Again, the studio doesn't see the cards.

If it's confirmed that the cards are legit, an election will be held. Usually, before the election, management will hold meetings and describe the dire consequences of unionization, and the Guild will have meetings and tell the other side. I could tell you a lot of stories of the misinformation that management often puts out at these meetings, but I'll save that for later. ;)

The election will be secret ballot, and if the majority of employees vote yes, then the studio is obligated to begin formal negotiations with the Guild. So a formal 'yes' vote by employees doesn't mean the studio goes union, only that negotiations must take place. That process can take weeks, or months. If management is virulently anti-union, they can even drag these negotiations out for a couple of years. They are only obligated to negotiate in "good faith," so sometimes the studio can thwart the process by spending a lot of money and just playing games until there's a hopeless stalemate.

During those negotiations the employees will give regular input into what's most important to them, and that will be the basis of the union's negotiations. Usually a contract is hammered out that is acceptable to all sides, and then it becomes a union studio.

That's the overall process in a big nutshell. I'll touch on the pros and cons in subsequent posts.

Now to actually start answering your questions. First, the off-shoring part. Is a studio that is under a union contract more likely to send work away? I think the record is clear that the answer is no.

Management will often make some variation of the following threat: If you silly animators vote to go union, we'll have to 1) close the studio, or, 2) send more work away because it'll be too expensive to do here, or, 3) replace you all with long-time union members.

Here's the reality -- the most stable, successful, and long-lived studios have generally been union shops. If providing union benefits was such an overwhelming burden on a studio, then that wouldn't be the case.

In fact, we probably wouldn't even try to organize a studio that was operating so close to the edge that providing decent benefits might cause them to close down. The LAST thing we want to do is cause studios to close. So if you hear number one above stated by a management type, kindly ask them to provide a few examples of studios that were forced to close because they started providing union benefits. You will hear silence.

Regarding point two above, again, ask them to provide examples that nonunion studios that keep MORE work in town than union shops. Actually, it's a couple of shows that are being done under union contracts that are pioneering bringing TV animation back here! So the increased off-shoring threat is nonsense.

Point three is even more bogus. The union contract actually provides incentives for studios to show favoritism to their own long-time employees, so this one is simply a pure scare tactic.

Now, the pros

Right off the bat I should point out that many union benefits operate in the background, and aren't apparent until you start thinking about retirement, or get sick, or start getting screwed at work. Ask someone who's worked a couple of years nonunion and then worked a year or two union, and chances are they'll be hard pressed to tell you that their life has changed much. But the changes are there, just not always so obvious.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit is salary minimums. You can see a list of salary minimums at the Guild's website, A lot of nonunion studios peg the salaries they offer to these minimums, so the wages offered between union and nonunion studios are often similar. Of course, if the union didn't exist, those nonunion studios could pay whatever they want, and salaries would be lower. And remember, these are minimums. We encourage every union member to negotiate for as high a salary as they can.

Retirement plans. Three of them. One is completely voluntary, the 401(k). That one is in your hands, and is a standard 401(k). The other two are completely automatic -- contributions are made by the studio, and don't come out of your paycheck. First of these is the Individual Account Plan, which gets contributions based on the hours you work, your salary minimum, residuals from video/dvd sales, and any health plan contribution overages. This one pays you a lump sum at retirement. For someone working full-time, it's been averaging about $3500-4000 per year over the last 7-8 years. The second is the Defined Benefit Plan, which pays a monthly annuity when you hit retirement age, based on your hours and years in the plan.

Note that these plans are continuous when you go from one union studio to another. The multi-employer basis of these plans is a tremendous benefit, given the nature of our business and the likelihood that a given employee will work at many different studios in their careers.

The health plan. It is frankly one of the best health plans available in southern California. One downside is that you need to work 4-6 months to build up enough hours for the health plan to become active, but once you're active you can 'bank' enough hours that the plan will continue for up to 14-16 months after you're laid off. Dental and vision care are part of the plan.

Workplace protections. Want to get paid overtime (especially now, that the federal government is striping away overtime pay for many employees)? Need someone to go to bat for you when you're being screwed at work? The union has a well-defined grievance proceedure that usually helps resolve problems before they get ugly. Steve, our business agent, makes unannounced visits to unions studios on a regular basis, putting out fires and trying to find problems early. Not that all union studios are perfect -- they aren't. But there is an effective mechanism to deal with the times they aren't.

Legal advice. Need someone to look over your contract, or give you some formal legal advice? Just ask.

Education and training. The Guild has operated the American Animation Institute for decades, we've organized millions of dollars of CG retraining, we give regular seminars and panel discussions on topics relevant to those in the profession, we operate a free computer lab, and so on. This is one area we've been particularly responsive. If a member requests some kind of training, we look into what it would take to provide it.

Severance pay. When you get laid off and aren't called back within 110 days, you get severance pay (up to two weeks pay if you've worked a full year).

Mandatory vacation and holiday pay.

Information. The Guild is often the first to find out where jobs are being offered, and we immediately get that info out to our members via our email list. We try to make our monthly newletter as informative as possible about what's happening in the industry. Our membership meetings are also a good place to get the inside scoop on what's happening (and free pizza and cokes for everyone who comes).

Holiday party and other events. Our annual holiday party is probably the biggest animation-related event of the year in LA, and is a great place to catch up with friends, network, and find out what's happening. We cosponsor the annual Evening of Remembrance, to honor those in animation who have passed on. We sponsor the Golden Awards, to honor those who have given decades of service to our industry. And whenever a member has a great idea for any other kind of event, we are happy to consider it.

That last point is key. The public face of the union is only as strong or as weak as our membership wishes it to be. Virtually all of our executive board are working artists and writers, and we love to get input on ways the Guild can be more effective and useful in the lives of animation professionals.

Now, the cons

For an employee, the only real cons are the initiation fee and the dues. If you're at a studio that votes to go union, then the initiation fee is waived. Yippie! If you're hired at a studio that is already union, then you pay this one-time fee. Let me emphasize that it's one-time, so when you go to another union studio, it's already taken care of. That initiation fee is two-weeks of your scale minimum salary. It's NOT two weeks of your actual salary, which might be well above scale minimum. For example, say you're hired as an assistant animator at $1500 a week. The contract scale minimum if $1092.16 for that position. So the initiation fee would be $2184.32 (plus some nominal fee on top, I forget exactly how much), not $3000.

I always try to emphasize that people can call the Guild office and work out a payment plan, so that initiation fee can be spread out into manageable chunks if that's needed.

The ongoing dues vary by position, and range between around $70 up to around $100 per quarter (i.e., $280-400 per year). When you stop working at a union shop you let the union office know you want to go on 'honorable withdrawal' so you don't have to pay dues until you start working union again.

The initiation fee and the dues are tax deductible.

You're also expected to look out for fellow union members, and to not do anything that undermines the Guild, but I think that goes with being a professional. Those are professional obligations, not cons.

There is frankly no other down sides I can think of you being a union member. However, sometimes I hear misinformation, which I'll address next.

The 'fake' cons

Here's some on the BS I hear. None of these are legit.

"The union will tell you what jobs you can work, and you're not allowed to do anything that is outside of your job classification." (No, you can do whatever the studio wants you to do, as long as they pay you accordingly.)

"The union will tell the studio who can have what jobs, or force the studio to hire people they don't want -- like the guys in lawnchairs at the construction site on 'The Sorpranos'." (100% false -- studios hire who they want, and if your work is inadequate or they don't need you anymore, they are free to fire you.)

"The union is a bunch of fat cats in fancy offices who do nothing but take your dues." (Come by and visit our offices in North Hollywood. Visit with our 5-person staff, see what they do. Become a union member and actually examine our financial records. We're the most transparent organization I know.)

"The union benefits are so expensive that the studio will have to close to pay for them." (Believe this only if they can tell you how much the actually pay for benefits now, exactly how much the union benefits will cost them, and how much profit the company is putting away. These are all real, tangible numbers that can be compared, but they'll never give them to you -- you just have to believe these tales of woe.)

"Union leaders are out of touch -- they don't care about you." (The president (me), vice president, and the executive board who run the union all work in the industry and volunteer for these leadership positions. Our business agent, Steve Hulett, is a full-time Guild employee who worked for years at Disney and Filmation. Believe me, we're in touch with every good and bad thing going on in this crazy industry!)

"Your nonunion friends can't be hired here if the studio goes union." (No, studios are free to hire the best people for the job.)

"I asked for some extra perks in my personal service agreement (PSA) and the studio management said they can't give me any extra holidays/vacation/salary/insert-the-perk-of-your-choice-here because the union rules won't let them." (This one has become very popular with studios that want to avoid a real negotiation with you regarding your PSA. The truth is that the union's collective bargaining agreement ONLY sets minimums -- you are encouraged to negotiate for better terms and conditions wherever you can.)

There are lots more, but those are some regular ones I hear. Hope this helps, MatrixChix.

Wow! I never knew we had a celebrity amongst our ranks! THE PRESIDENT himself! Impressive! Hey Kev this was really informative and I really appreciate you giving the time to write all that up. I am now much more informed then I was 6 minutes ago. Do you know anything about whether there is a guild in Florida?

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us." ---Gandalf

Hi Matrix Chix,

First off, all this only applies if you are in the LA area of California. I don't think the Guild covers San Diego or the San Francisco area, but I could be wrong.

Are you being treated unfairly by the studio you work for? I would sugest you visit the Animation Guild's (Union) website and compare what your pay scale is versus what the union offers. Some times non-union studios pay more than union ones, but it is rare. Also the Guild's heathcare program is a very good one.

It also depends on what kind of studio you are working at. The Guild can't step in if it is an internet studio.

As for off shoreing work over seas, this is a problem, esspecially if a studio has contracts with overseas studios or worse, has it's own overseas studio. But you can't let that be a threat. If the studio wants to send your job overseas, it will. It's sad but true. As for Kevin saying "...ask them to provide examples that nonunion studios that keep MORE work in town than union shops." I don't believe that the Guild forces work over seas, but I don't think it's helping to keep jobs here. At least not animation jobs. In my opinion, the Guild keeps preproduction work here in LA, but is fine with animation positions being farmed out. Case in point, there is NO traditional feature animated project being worked on in LA. Disney has gone 3D as well as DreamWorks, and Warner Bros has faded away. Also all TV animation is sent over seas while all the preproduction is done in the US, with the exception of a few shows. Now Kevin also said, "Actually, it's a couple of shows that are being done under union contracts that are pioneering bringing TV animation back here!" I only know of one production and thats "Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends" by Cartoon Network, but once again I could be wrong and there could be more.

Get as informed as you can about the union befor you make up you mind Matrix Chix.

Hey, Hett, thanks for the kind words. Yes, there is a branch of the Animation Guild in Florida, but Disney is the only studio covered, so there's not much left of it right now.

John, good info, except that the Animation Guild DOES cover internet animation. We're in negotiations with Neopets right now. And the Guild can represent any kind of studio where the animators/artists are interested, including games and CG effects houses. Just have to get the rep cards to start the process.

And the Guild very much wants to keep ALL jobs here, not just prepro. We have made it clear to the studios that we will work with them in thoughtful ways to get work back here. But we cannot force them to do that, and 25 year old habits are hard to break.

There IS TV animation coming back to LA. Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and Puffy Ami Yumi are two examples, and someone told me a third example that I can't remember right now. We're hoping this is the start of a real trend, and my hat is off to the show runners and key artists who have spearheaded these efforts.

As for feature, your answer seems to imply that the Guild has sat by and watched traditional feature animation get sent overseas, that you have overseas studios doing outsource feature animation for the US. In fact, traditional feature didn't go anywhere, it simply (and I think temporarily) dried up. It had nothing to do with the union, it had to do with the wild success of CG features, and the relative lack of success of traditional films. That said, excluding anime feautres being made in Japan, the ONLY traditionally animated feature I know of being made made right now with any kind of budget is being done here, at Universal, under a union contract (Curious George). Yeah, they've just been delayed again, but I have several friends who have been on it for awhile, and I expect it to hit full production soon.

Thanks, Kevin

wow...thanks for sharing that with me..I'm still new @ this animation business, so I really don't know what it means to 'go Union." Well, now I'm more aware...I'll check out that link this weekend...meanwhile, I have deadlines to meet.... :eek:

thanks again!

Matrix Chix, also if you get a job at a studio under Guild contract, you have to join the union whether you want to or not. So much for freedom of choice.

Just to clear a few things up. I applude the work and all the effort of the Renegade Animation crew working on "Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi" in bringing ANIMATORS back to the US, but they are not a union studio. In fact they pay their workers quite a bit more than union studios, and are still treated well, and have no excessive overtime hours asked of them. The third show you might be thinking of, might be that "Magpie" show being worked on at Disney.

While I understand that it wasn't the Guild that closed the feature studios, did the Guild do anything to try and stop it from happening? As for the out sourcing of feature animation, what about Spongebob? Return To Neverland? All those Winny the Pooh movies? Do you really think Disney or DreamWorks will fully re-staff and re-furnish a whole building if they decide to make another traditional feature to see how it goes? Or are they more likely to just do the preproduction here, and farm the rest out to Disney Australia, Korea, or India?

To me the Guild seems to have a very "us vs. them" mentality. Artists good, studios bad. It seems that instead of considering, god forbid, lowering their pay minimums as an insentive to keep some work here, they stand their ground, and then cry foul when the studio up and moves out of town with their jobs.

John, Puffy Ami Yumi is being done for a union studio (i.e., it's in-town outsource), therefore Renegade is required to pay above union minimums (i.e., they have to at least pay union minimum PLUS the amount that a union studio would contribute for the union health plan and the two union pension plans). Now, most union studios pay somewhat above union scale, while still providing union benefits, so please don't get the impression that union studios merely pay union scale. From talking with animators at Renegade, my impression is that they're paying decent wages, but are not paying "quite a bit more than union studios."

Now, John, what is this "While I understand that it wasn't the Guild that closed the feature studios, . . ."?!?

What union feature studios closed? Disney and DreamWorks are still in business. Disney feature has been hiring steadily lately and DW probably has a bigger crew then ever. Warners had three feature flops and folded their feature and TV animation divisions together. Universal missed out on the boom and yet is actually getting back into the feature game. Sony decided to get into the feature animation game, formed Sony Pictures Animation, and signed a union contract.

Finally, the only "us vs. them" mentality exists in the minds of people who don't understand the Guild. We have a symbiotic relationship with the studios. We look out for artists/writers, protect their rights, fight for good benefits, but ultimately we care about the industry being healthy, because artists/writers can't prosper without good studios.

Sorry Kevin, my mistake. I was talking about traditional feature animation, but I forgot to put 'traditional' in there.

I didn't know that studios that do buisiness with a union studio have to match or beat union scale. So how does that work for studios that are being outsourced to? Do Korean studios have to pay above union wages?

As for Neo Pets, from the people I've talked to, the artists at Neo Pets haven't heard from Steve or the Guild in several months now. And as a side note, I do recall seeing several job postings here on AWN for Neo Pets in their over seas studio soon after the union got involved.

Lastly, I guess there are a few high end guild artists that don't understand the guild. I esspecially like the last page where it says " And all who make animation are welcome in our ranks." Well that's not true is it? You are only welcome if you work at a union studio, so most likely, Matrix Chix can't even join.

John, the requirement to match union minimum salary/benefits costs for outsource studios only applies within the Guild's jurisdiction, so it's only for southern California. I can guess that your next thought will be that this requirement only serves to encourage outsourcing out of California, but it actually hasn't worked that way. Non-union studios, which can pay whatever they want for outsource work within LA, still usually outsource across the Pacific. It's union studios that tend to outsource within southern California. If this requirement really drove work out of town, then we could expect to see lots of nonunion studios outsourcing here in LA at slave wages. But we don't.

Regarding Neo Pets, I recall that Steve had lunch with some of the artists there as recently as last month, around the time of the last formal negotiating session with the studio. Steve's contact person among the artists hasn't returned Steve's calls for the last couple of weeks -- in fact, at his last call the phone was disconnected. When I spoke with Steve yesterday, he was planning on calling some of the other artists to touch base with them. For any Neo Pets artists reading this, you should know that there hasn't been any negotiating meetings recently. The Neo Pets rep has provided a very limited schedule of potential meeting times, which is dragging out the process. I believe the next negotiating session is scheduled for sometime in the next week or two, which is why Steve's been trying been trying to connect with the contact person. As always, any of the artists can call Steve any day of the week (he's freely passed out his work and home numbers) to touch base.

And John, despite your attempts at negative spin, in fact the Guild does welcome all who work in animation. Our industry is much better off for the five decades of combined efforts by thousands of animation professionals working together through the Animation Guild, and the more we work together the better our industry can become. If you're at a non-union studio, I encourage you to sign a rep card and get the process started.

My dad is the administrator of a small town facility and, well, all I know is if I ever join a Union, he's gonna disown me. Unions mean bad news for bosses and such; though I was just in a job that had great pay thanks to the fact that it used to be a Union job, and they pushed for higher salary (over the years that job switched to non-Union, but the high pay still remains).

You mean working in animation hasn't been enough for him to disown you already? ;)