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

by Heather Kenyon

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 that’s 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 it’s 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 wouldn’t call unemployment and despair "a more stable reality." The heads of the companies still make $454 to every one-dollar of ours, that’s 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 won’t cut their salaries and Silicon Graphics won’t 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 we’d 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 what’s 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 you’re just a replaceable part to them. Some studios don’t even call you an artist. You are a "creative," or "wrist," as in, "I’ll 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 "Don’t-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 you’ll get anything from suing an entire corporation? Fat chance. That’s 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 you’ll still be in that same studio 50 years from now? No studio has been around that long except Disney. Think you’ll still be drawing as well 50 years from now? Odds are you won’t. 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.

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