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In January, The Animation Guild announced a twofold breakthrough: By unionizing Harriet the Spy studio Titmouse New York, the IATSE local had not only initiated an expansion outside of Los Angeles County, it had also organized production staff for the first time in recent history. Since then, TAG has unveiled new organizing campaigns of production workers at a rate of practically one a month — at the shows Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites, at studios Titmouse L.A. and ShadowMachine and, on June 2, at The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad! (Before organizing production staff, TAG represented a number of animation workers at these latter employers.)
This campaign — targeting production managers, production supervisors, production coordinators, production assistants and writers assistants, among others, all of whom help move artwork and scenes and facilitate communications between departments — has so far paid off for the union. While the attempts to expand TAG’s presence at The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad! appear to be headed for a National Labor Relations Board election, the guild says it has succeeded in gaining voluntary recognition at Rick and Morty, Titmouse New York, Titmouse L.A. and ShadowMachine and prevailed in an NLRB election at Solar Opposites.
And, while union organizers won’t go into the specifics of any future campaigns, it appears TAG’s interest in organizing production workers isn’t going to abate anytime soon. “The only way we’re able to make meaningful and lasting and important change in the animation industry is if we can speak to the voice of everyone who works in animation,” explains TAG business representative Steve Kaplan.
The push is part of a strategy to grow the size and reach of the guild, which already represents animation artists, technicians and writers, thereby bolstering its strength and leverage within the industry. Under previous leadership, TAG did represent some production workers, but that number dropped off, and while mapping their workplaces recently, members realized that “a large number of their co-workers were not covered by any union, mainly production workers,” says TAG organizer Ben Speight. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Speight says, production workers were some of the last to leave the studios and were some of the first to be brought back and could “have been used as a wedge to try to continue production and undermine the artists’ stance during that time.”
One entertainment industry management-side labor lawyer who asked to remain anonymous says the timing of the organizing campaign’s launch struck them as “particularly interesting.” From November until recently, TAG was locked in prolonged negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the bargaining representative for studios and streamers, for a new “master agreement” (a tentative agreement was reached May 27). The AMPTP talks “seemed like the appropriate place to be discussing on an industrywide basis whether the classifications would be expanded to include these additional positions,” this lawyer said, suggesting the guild might have felt it couldn’t have succeeded at the negotiations table and therefore organized workers at individual employers. (TAG’s Kaplan responded, “There’s strategy to organizing, and we will file for recognition where and when we can.”)
From the point of view of the production workers who support the TAG effort, though, it’s about time that they received similar benefits to their unionized colleagues in animation. “We want to continue working remotely, we want a retirement plan, we want to afford health care for our dependents and partners,” says Margaret Glaser, an assistant production manager on The Simpsons. Adds Laura Smalec, a Family Guy production coordinator in the animatics department, “We have a lot of people who are really well educated and have tons of years of experience, and we don’t have these benefits yet — while almost everyone else on our show does. So it’s more just about creating equality amongst the show.”
Tom Sito, a former Animation Guild president and author of the 2006 book Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson, notes that production staffs at animation companies have grown in the past few decades. The animation renaissance of the 1990s led to an expansion of infrastructure in animation companies, while studios that outsource some work internationally or to outside companies, like Illumination Entertainment, required more workers to coordinate and track their work. “I think the thing that’s kind of surprising from the last few years is how there’s a unanimity of purpose among the production people that they want union representation,” says Sito. “Usually [in unionization efforts] there’s a more divisive kind of opinion among the individual workers of what would be in their interest.”
Jason Jones, an American Dad! animatic and timing production supervisor, says union supporters want to make production work more “sustainable.”
He adds: “There was this old studio construct that persisted that animation production was an entry-level job to other careers. Maybe you could get away with selling that narrative to shows that lasted one or two seasons, but we now see it’s not reality, because shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad! have production workers with more than a decade of employment. The reality is animation production work is a career.”
Moving forward, Jones believes that the current organization effort at 20th Television Animation shows could inspire others: “Certainly nothing is more high-profile than The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad!,” he says. “I think this is a beacon to all animation production workers across the board to unionize.”
The next challenge for TAG and production workers with certified unions will be expanding the number of employers with organizing campaigns and bargaining contracts that address workers’ top concerns and priorities. Dates haven’t yet been set for contract talks to begin at employers with recently-unionized production workers, according to TAG. And as to whether the Guild has more production worker campaigns that might go public this year, Kaplan says, “I would love to be able to tell you when and where, but it’s really up to those units.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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