The Animation Guild has been on a roll.
Since the start of the year, the 70-year-old IATSE Local — which bargains on behalf of more than 5,000 members who work as animation artists, writers and technicians — has established new unions on the series Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites as well as at the studios Titmouse L.A., Titmouse New York and ShadowMachine. (An organizing effort at 20th Television Animation shows The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad!, announced on Thursday, will go to the National Labor Relations Board for multiple union representation votes.) These drives have pushed the Guild back into the business of bargaining on behalf of production workers (production managers, production supervisors, production assistants and others), who TAG previously hadn’t represented for some time. The Titmouse New York effort, moreover, turned TAG into a national union, expanding its jurisdiction beyond L.A. County for the first time and earning one member an invitation to the White House. If successful, the 20th Television push would add about 100 members, in production but also — in another first for TAG — in information technology.
One key union staffer during this push (though he maintains his role “pales in comparison” to the workers driving these campaigns) has been TAG organizer Ben Speight, who joined the Local in the fall of 2020 and is based just north of Atlanta. A labor organizer since he was a student at Valdosta State University in southern Georgia, Speight worked on behalf of home health care workers in Michigan, hotel workers in California and bus drivers and sanitation workers in Georgia with the Teamsters Local 728 before joining TAG. According to Speight, organizing isn’t just about tackling “hot shops,” or places where workers want to organize, but about strategically choosing sites that build leverage and strength for the union overall. “It happens to be a great historic opportunity that many people that are coming to TAG are people that in fact increase the power of existing TAG members,” he says.
In an interview conducted the same day that TAG struck a new three-year tentative agreement with the studios and streamers, Speight discussed the future of organizing for TAG, where the Local is seeking to expand next and how animation workers today are showing they “are not the animation workers of the recent past.”
We’re talking on the same day that The Animation Guild reached a tentative agreement with the AMPTP. While specifics on the deal have yet to be announced, do you feel that it satisfies the issues that were raised in the #NewDealforAnimation campaign?
Well, I think it’s ultimately up for the members to decide that. And no struggle in history has achieved most of the demands that working people both want and need, so it’s an ongoing struggle that doesn’t have a zero-sum outcome. And the vision of the New Deal for animation workers will continue to be something that has to be fought for now and into the future. What this has done, though, I believe, has indicated to the animation industry that animation workers today are not the animation workers of the recent past, that they have an understanding that they have to defend their standards and expand them or they’ll be undermined through the industry’s strategic goal of seeking cheaper labor without the same rights anywhere in the world they could find them. Georgia is an example of that. But also the animation industry has a global production process that cannot be confined simply to one county in the United States, or one region of the world, so this contract really sets the stage for a strategy to build The Animation Guild’s power way beyond just L.A. County. That’s what our organizing is about. It will not be a final decision in that struggle with this contract, but there’s been a lot achieved. And I think that the members will obviously take full advantage of the gains that they have and continue to fight over the next three years so they’re in a better position to negotiate even more when this contract is concluded.
What are the factors behind The Animation Guild’s recent organizing spree, in your view?
I think there are broader social and economic forces that have influenced and gave rise to this period of increased union organizing through The Animation Guild, but also we see it across many industries where the economy favors workers making more demands upon their employers because they’re in higher demand than ever. So a tighter labor market would lend towards workers making increased wage demands, demands on working conditions that correspond to what they’ve earned and what they deserve. And if they don’t get that, then there are people commenting about the “Great Resignation” or the ability to quit: When you’re that willing to leave and you have no collective rights as a group, that might seem like the most viable option for you. But what more and more workers are doing are saying, no, rather than leaving something that I’ve invested in and actually care about — and for artists and production workers and those in animation — that I don’t want to abandon that, I want to improve that, I want to make it more sustainable. In the animation organizing that we’re seeing, people really do care about what they do, they care about their coworkers, but they want to be seen, heard and treated with dignity.
With the voluntary recognition of an Animation Guild union at Titmouse New York, the Guild expanded for the first time outside of Los Angeles County. What are the Guild’s ambitions in terms of further expansion and are there particular regions that you want to break into?
I think it’s important to think of the animation industry as something that is breaking all boundaries and borders and that TAG should reflect where the industry and the work is actually being done. So if you were to think of it as three complementing approaches: There’s animation workers within L.A., mainly production, but others — you can think of stop motion, gaming, VFX, there’s other animation-adjacent non-union sectors that are immediately within the vicinity of TAG’s union hall in Burbank. So there’s that: Hundreds if not thousands of people that should be a part of The Animation Guild and certainly could be right away if they wanted to. Then you have TAG members who during the pandemic — and this is obviously one of the main, contentious issues in negotiations — continued to work for L.A. studios but happen to reside elsewhere. Ensuring people who are working “remotely” have coverage under their collective bargaining agreement that TAG has negotiated for around 6,000 members, so they don’t lose those rights and are disenfranchised, is the other strategic object. And then the third is these animation hubs. Obviously TAG hired me here in Atlanta with that in mind. Obviously TAG is no longer an L.A. County-bound organization. You have Vancouver that has the Canadian Animation Guild and TAG’s sister Local 938, that is building there. You also have independent studios and others that are operating in Austin and every one of these different animation hubs, whether Austin, Atlanta, Portland, New York. They all have art colleges and other institutions that are feeding them every year a new crop of brilliant, bright-eyed young artists and others that are coming into the industry and who literally in many cases cannot afford to move to L..A. Because of that, and because of the tax credits that are driving growth, they’re [employers are] seeing a boom of profits with low labor costs in places like Atlanta and others. It’s less about exporting the exact L.A. standards to those places and more about stabilizing those labor markets with the workers determining what they need in order to have a sustainable life near where they work. It’s yet to be seen how soon a return to the studios will occur, and of course that seems to be perennially delayed, but there’s no doubt that there will be for some time the need for in-person work as well as ongoing work, whether it be from freelancers or direct employees that are scattered anywhere they happen to live. So we should adapt our organizing model to reflect where workers actually are, versus asking then to adapt to our union.
The Animation Guild has particularly focused on production workers in its recent round of organizing efforts. Why was this an important group of workers for the Guild to focus on?
Many of the production workers that are organizing now, either they have a background in art or they have a deep passion for animation themselves. So in many ways socially and culturally, they are the same community as those that happen to be in artist roles. Or we’re talking about people who may be writers themselves or are looking to go into the writers’ path or people with just a deep love for the work that they do [or] they have left other types of work to do this. It wasn’t too much of a lift for artists, in the main, to see a natural alliance with those that happened to be on the “production side.”
Are there other fields that you believe are under-organized in animation that you have your eye on?
I’ll reference a book for some context of our thinking about this, a book that came out early last year by Sarah Jaffe called Work Won’t Love You Back. You have folks that are for instance in stop-motion, gaming, VFX, people who view themselves as deeply, deeply passionate about what they do — and that creative love for their work is highly exploitable. And they’re almost told that they shouldn’t expect more than what they have, and it’s just part of the way it’s always been. We see [that] in a lot of these places where there’s a sense that the margins are so low that any disruption, any request for more, would make one of these entities uncompetitive in these cutthroat sectors where any one of the corporate titans can just go to another supplier. What makes you want to organize is the need for stability, but what makes organizing difficult is how ubiquitous instability is. The fact is is that instability is the norm in the industry and it will remain the norm, so how can workers insulate themselves against that? Well, they should have a seat at the table, whether in good times or in bad.
Whether you’re on the so-called margins of the industry and working for a smaller shop or you’re working for a titan like Netflix, [employers] really have no commitment to you as a worker beyond your next paycheck. And they will give you the minimum notice required under the law. In fact [with] the WARN Act [Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act] that normally protects workers from layoffs, with 60 days’ notice or 60 days’ pay in lieu of notice, just like the Fair Labor Standards Act, which excludes many people in the entertainment industry from overtime protections through the creative professional exemption, so too does the WARN Act around notice. [The WARN Act does not cover workers employed on short-term projects.] [These are] issues that TAG members currently face that they have rights to deal with, because they have the mobility to go to another studio without loss of benefits, without loss of pay. But if you’re a [non-union] production worker, any gap of employment like that without benefits, you’re going to start all over again.
While the industry turned to producing more animation during the early days of COVID, Netflix just cut 70 animation roles in a round of layoffs responding to slow revenue growth. Are you concerned at all that a new shift in the industry’s approach to animation could be coming, and that could have an effect on work opportunities and organizing?
I’m no expert on the direction of the industry in terms of its growth potential and certain forms of animation, but one thing that’s clear is that when every other form of entertainment stops, that not just members of the IATSE’s animation content explode[s], but other different forms of animation. It’s hard to imagine that that demand would abate any time soon. If we were talking about an economy that was in decline or an industry that was facing collapse, then the demands that animation workers would be making would seem to be out of step. But we’re dealing with entities that are becoming larger and larger, almost monopoly-sized titans in the industry where they are the most influential corporate powers in our lives and when Netflix announces that they’re laying people off while they’re increasing cost to consumers, while Disney is not providing the leadership that it could provide culturally and that it is offending its entire workforce, most of the public is not coming to the defense of corporate greed and corporate unilateral power. So if you were running an animation studio today, there might be a reasonable conclusion that you’ve reached to not be seen as those that are taking advantage of workers but [as] seeking to take the high road by recognizing that they [workers] have the right to consent to their own organizations and to vote and make decisions around their working conditions.
You’ve worked on behalf of health care workers, hotel workers and truck drivers. Now that you’ve been at the Animation Guild for some time, what strikes you as different or unique about the labor movement in animation and the moment it’s in now?
Well I just like to be surrounded by creative punk-rock kind of people that bring so much, not just enthusiasm, but very focused attention to the work of organizing. When [animation workers] manage their spreadsheets, it is an art to be seen in and of itself because they are so detail-oriented and they are so thorough with keeping track of their conversations and who they need to talk to next. So not taking anything away from a sanitation worker or bus driver, who I deeply love and am passionate about equally as well, there’s something special about people in the animation industry where they care about one another, they care about what they do and they’re incredibly sensitive to the fact that their treatment is not reflective of what they contribute. I come out of an organizing school of thought that says “you have to do everything in person, everything has to be in person.” Well, that’s shown to be a fallacy with what these animation workers have done where they’ve built very, very deep bonds over Zoom and over things like Discord and meeting regularly. Not to paint a broad brush, but they have said amongst themselves that people in animation perhaps are known to be less extroverted than others in other industries and perhaps they have more anxiety when it comes to speaking in groups and other things. But what I’ve found that is because they’re surrounded by others who share many of those things in common, they’re able to overcome whatever differences they have because there’s this common sense that they’re in this together. That’s something that Tom Sito and others have written about in the animation community; there’s some sense of solidarity that they already have. Jane McAlevey talks about it, others talk about it: A union organizer isn’t creating a sense of organization, the employers are creating that through their division of labor and workers are also creating those social networks for survival.
When you have an organizing conversation with somebody in animation, it gets really emotional; these things are deeply felt. That’s why these efforts haven’t just been quickie “Hey, sign a union card, you want to be in a union?” but have been a process of months, without exception, on each one of these campaigns. [There have been] deep, hours-long conversations about why this is important to folks. Because they’re making a very conscious, fully aware decision that affirms something deeper in them than to say “I want more money.” It’s more about “I want to be valued.” We all deserve that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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