Empowering The Union

Anyone familiar with the history of the organized labor movement in the United States knows full well the enormous struggle that it took to get working men and women the most basic of rights that people today take for granted, union or non-union. Many of the pioneers of organized labor were massacred in cold blood by the very people who should have been protecting them. Before the existence of unions, the distribution of wealth in this country was absurdly lopsided. The living conditions of the average worker was, in many instances, horrific while the barons of industry lived in royal opulence.

Productivity always increases when morale is high and a positive working environment exists. A prosperous working class is healthy. It keeps the economy growing by giving the average American purchasing power that in turn, fuels continued productivity.

A strong union is essential if workers expect to share some of the benefits from the results of their labor. When a union loses strength, it loses the confidence of its membership and those adversarial individuals in high places who wouldn't mind making an extra buck if it meant that their employees lived in mud huts would do just that. A strong union is a buffer against employee abuse and social and economic regression.

I make the following comments with all due respect to the membership of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 839 IATSE. The following remarks are solely my opinion.

If the Union expects to remain a viable entity in the future of the American Animation Industry, it has to change.

Many, if not most of the members of the Union are understandably upset. They have not had the kind of support from their Union that one would normally expect. The Union has, in many ways, become detached and antiquated. It clings to old ideas and outdated thinking. It asks itself why more of its 3000 members don't show up for meetings, even with free beer and pizza. Most members really don't feel they are a part of the Union. They see it as an obligation, being forced to join once they get into a Union studio in order to keep their jobs.

The Union, very likely without realizing it, has created an atmosphere of hostility among the majority of its members. Its members see it only as a means of securing a pension plan and good medical and dental benefits. But the Union has failed to meet a very basic need of its membership. It has failed to protect them in the modern animation environment that I have been describing thus far. It cannot offer them hope. It cannot offer them a plan for the future. By their own admission, they cannot help them with employment once they have been laid off. They can only offer them a list of Union studios whose doors they can knock on.

To underscore my point, the list they provide is badly outdated. I've been told by an unemployed Union artist looking for work that several of the studios that are on that list no longer exist.

They are perceived as being impersonal and uncaring. If they are passing out lists with studios that do not exist anymore, it can also be argued that they are disorganized and certainly out of touch with what is going on.

When a newcomer enters a Union studio for the first time to work as an animation artist, they immediately assume a hefty financial debt to the Union in the form of an entrance or initiation fee. This fee can be substantial as it is usually equivalent to two weeks gross salary plus quarterly dues. For many artists entering the industry, especially those who are paying off massive student loans, this is a daunting financial obligation that does nothing for them but help to keep them struggling. If the fee is not paid, the artist will be forced out of his or her job. This isn't a very effective way of developing goodwill.

Artists entering animation view this as a ransom they must pay to stay employed. None of this money goes towards anything that is of any benefit to them. It only goes to sustain a Union front office that staffs between 3 nd 5 full time employees and as a fee to the mother union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Screen Engineers (or as they are referred to in the entertainment industry, IATSE), which in turn is a tributary of the AFL-CIO.

On top of the fact that such a heavy load is assumed by the newcomer in the industry, the benefits which make the Union so attractive are withheld from the new employee until six hundred hours of work in a Union studio have been logged, and the fee has been paid. The frustration that artists have with the Union is compounded by the fact that one's benefits can be lost if they find themselves in an extended period of unemployment or wind up working non-union, which is not uncommon.

There aren't many new members who are anxious and eager to contribute to the Union experience. The Union winds up with an apathetic member who is forced to join, many times against their will. If a studio decides to sign a Union contract, the artists employed at the studio at that time may enter the Union without having to pay the initiation fee. But those that are hired later feel cheated. Through no fault of their own, they've become a victim of circumstance. While the new members who got in for free and are absolved of the financial obligation associated with Union membership, their new coworkers are not and become upset and disgruntled. They simply do not develop an appreciation for the Union because the Union does nothing for them but make their lives more difficult at the outset of their careers in a Union studio.

The Union expends a lot of energy in an effort to get non-union studios to ultimately sign a Union contract. The reason why they have such a difficult time with most of these non-union studios is that the Union is not trusted. The Union fails to protect its members. It fails to adequately defend its own membership from the abuses that artists in many Union shops have to suffer through. The non-union artists see the Union as simply a benefits package and not much else. They have 401K plans at non-union studios along with medical and dental benefits. To add insult to injury, non-union artists are working steadily and many Union artists are not. Employment situations, although far from ideal, can oftentimes be better than what they are in Union studios. Many non-union artists are gainfully employed, have good benefits, a 401K plan and do not see the need for joining the Union. Furthermore, the arguments that the Union presents to these artists to encourage them to sign Union representation cards fall short. Why should a non-union artist join the union when the situation at Union studios is worse than the situation they deal with in a non-union studio?

Besides, the Union argues that it has an audited 401K plan, but that plan is held hostage by IATSE. If the Union were ever to break away, IATSE has the legal right to confiscate the entire pension fund of Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 839.

For the Union to become a viable part of the future of animation, it must reinvent itself and start asserting its protective power. I will include the following suggestions in hope that its membership will take some action.

First, stop attacking your non-union colleagues. They are not responsible for the problems in the industry, nor the problems within the Union itself. They are a major part of the potential solution. Stop aiming your rhetorical guns at them. You are encouraging the politics of divisiveness which does our community no good whatsoever. They have a right to choose. They won't be forced, manipulated or coerced into signing up for Union representation. The Union has to focus on the common problem that we as an industry and as a community face. The Union must develop a practical, long term plan for doing something about empowering its members and protecting them against the unfair labor policies and practices of the pseudo producers.

Second, the Union itself has to realize that it contributes to the negative situation that exists in this industry and it has to make a commitment to change. It has to become a strong leader once again. If it does not, then it will be simply continue to be what it currently is, a benefits and pension administrator for those who happen to be vested with them and not much more.

Third, they've got to do something about the way they handle their day to day business affairs. As a test, a friend of mine called their offices recently. He was laid off and left a message with the receptionist for a certain individual there whose responsibility it is to assist the membership in this way. My friend's call was never returned.

I spoke with individuals at the union office recently. I offered to help them pass out Union representation cards at my place of business in an effort to do something about the situation that exists in animation. I found my conversation with the people at the office surreal. In a discussion I had, I was amazed at their lack of understanding about what was going on, or the gravity of the situation. There wasn't much coherency to what they were saying. At one point, I asked to have their newsletter The Pegboard, sent to me. The person I spoke with informed me that it would cost $10 a year, and that they would have to receive payment before they sent it. I was astonished. Here I was, offering to assist them in drumming up new members and they were being this petty.

Which leads me to my next suggestion. Get The Pegboard out! Get it out to everyone for free! Leave stacks of them at break areas in Union and non-union shops. This is a vital communication tool. It is vital for getting your point of view considered. What good will it do your organization to reserve it only for members?

Something must also be done about the phone demeanor of those full time employees running the office. They come off as crass, arrogant, rude and genuinely hostile to everyone, especially their own members. I suggest that the Union's office personnel take a Dale Carnegie course or two.

Cut out those old, outdated strong arm tactics. I've been informed that someone from the Union recently entered a small, start up studio and threatened them with closure if they didn't sign a contract with them. If this is true, what kind of a method is this for influencing people and winning friends? You're lucky harassment charges weren't filed against you.

There are more effective, professional ways of doing business. Members must be attracted, not bullied into joining. The Union has to develop a new approach in its relationships with small studios and individual artists if it expects to exist.

They must take the initiative in investigating every complaint that comes their way pertaining to employer abuse and aggressively defend its members when the situation calls for it. Their clients are its members, not the studios. They must get their priorities straight. Offer legal assistance if the situation warrants it. Fight for your people. Get involved with what is going on. Offer comfort and encouragement and not this helpless, defeatist babble which they are becoming so well known for.

For example, in the January issue of The Pegboard, the following comments can be found: "Nobody can expect to be employed by one company from college to retirement. The days of lifetime employment are deader than Elvis Presley". I wonder. Those working in animation management aren't doing too bad now, are they? And how about you guys working at Union headquarters?

"You can contact us and let us help when you are unemployed. We can't create jobs where there aren't any, but often we can steer you in the right direction." To be sure. By passing out lists of studios which include ones which don't exist anymore?

And why in the world can't the Union create jobs? What kind of progressive thinking is this? Why can't those fat cats from IATSE or the AFL-CIO provide start up capital for small businesses? Why can't the Union get seed money from the mother ship to get the Union studios of tomorrow going? Why can't independent projects be funded by the Union? I see no reason why it can't be done.

When independent entrepreneurial animation artists take the risk to get a new shop up and running, what does the Union do to help them succeed? Come barging through the doors and threaten to close them down? Why should any independent animation enterprise sign with the Union if the Union cannot provide any real, tangible assistance to anyone?

The modern animation industry era consists of highly skilled, extremely specialized artists involved in the creation of intellectual properties which are marketed around the world in every way imaginable. The Union must wake up to this reality and in the future, address issues that pertain to this economic environment.

Last, but certainly not least, I suggest that when the Union's contract with the studios expires in July, 2000, get rid of that "no strike clause" forever. A no strike clause is an admission of weakness. It allows the studios to do whatever they want and leaves the Union powerless to do anything about it. A labor union that does not have the right to strike is not really a labor union at all. It cannot possibly defend its constituency against widespread abuse. It renders its ultimate weapon useless.

The Union must redefine itself. It must find a way of becoming viable in ways other than pension money held hostage by IATSE and medical and dental benefits. It has to have the courage and energy to do what its supposed to do by standing up to defend and protect its members. It has to encourage and foster entrepreneurial endeavors within the industry. It has to become member oriented instead of IATSE centered. It has to have an ideological reason to exist and it must be able to apply that ideology. Otherwise, all it will be doing is publishing a newsletter, collecting dues and getting nowhere.

Charles Zembillas © 1999
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