‘New Deal for Animation’: IATSE Members and Allies Rally Amid Contract Talks

“We desperately need a new deal that gives equal pay for equal work,” Animation Guild committee chair Teri Cusumano told hundreds of members

IATSE animation guild rally
IATSE bill rally

Animation Guild members and allies rallied just up the road from the Disney Studios in Burbank Sunday to demand a “New Deal for Animation” for workers that should include equal pay to their “live-action counterparts.”

It has been nearly eight months since the initial expiration date for the labor contract between Hollywood studios and IATSE Local 839, also known as The Animation Guild (TAG). Now, with that deadline being extended as talks over wages and working conditions for animation workers drag on, members are standing firm and expressing their needs, both vocally and as painted by members upon dozens of cars.

“Our master agreement is a living document, and in many ways, it represents the industry of the past rather than the industry of today,” Teri Cusumano, co-chair of the TAG Color Design Committee told the hundreds in attendance.

“We need a new deal that pays us equally for our work regardless of what platform it airs on, that equally represents workers regardless of where they are doing that work,” Cusumano added. “We need a new deal that pays animation workers equally to our live-action counterparts and we desperately need a new deal that gives equal pay for equal work.”

IATSE animation bill rally
IATSE Animation Guild rally in Burbank, CA (Jeremy Fuster)

The animation contract talks, initially set to begin this past summer, were first postponed to allow the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) to continue long talks with IATSE for the Hollywood Basic and Area Standards Agreements, which govern working conditions and wages for all film and television productions nationwide. Those agreements were ratified by union members by the narrowest of margins, averting the first-ever strike in IATSE history.

While the details of that contract sharply divided workers on whether it achieved the systemic change they were looking for, the organizing around that agreement built a sense of solidarity amongst IATSE locals that has carried over into this new push by The Animation Guild.

The rally on Sunday took place at the headquarters for IATSE Local 80, which represents grips and warehouse workers among several other production set positions. Along with animation workers ranging from writers and storyboard artists to character riggers and lighting technicians, the rally’s attendees included members of other IATSE locals representing live-action jobs as well as other guilds like the Writers Guild of America.

“There has been this incredible growth in content over the last few years but not a similar growth in how workers are paid,” said Alex Wolinetz, a WGA member and co-head of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Hollywood Labor division. “We are seeing a burgeoning labor movement where people recognize that their success in the workplace requires showing solidarity to others in their times of struggle.”

IATSE animation bill rally

Looking at the issues facing animation workers, the parallels to their live-action counterparts can easily be seen. Writers, for example, are paid less for animated shows than for live-action shows because decades-long contract terms have grouped animation writers into the Animation Guild pay scale instead of the WGA pay scale. TAG is looking for a significant increase in writer pay to eliminate the genre pay gap.

Even if these writers and other animation workers get a significant pay increase, the contract between The Animation Guild and the AMPTP only is enforced for animation studios based in Los Angeles County. Crystal Kan, a storyboard artist and member of TAG’s executive board, points out that this is a diversity problem as it can make it difficult for lower-income workers, many of whom are people of color, to get a foothold in animation if they can’t afford to move out to L.A., a complaint that was also leveled by IATSE Local 871 last year as they pushed for higher wages for Hollywood’s lowest-paid production workers.

Kan also says that TAG members are speaking out against a wave of staffing consolidation on productions that has forced some animators to work in departments they do not have experience in and others to work freelance for less money.

She tells WrapPRO that on one show she recently worked on, layout artists and storyboarders were merged into the same department, requiring staffers to be involved in both early stages of the animating process despite having spent years training specifically in one or the other as has long been standard in the industry.

“Some workers are fine with trying different things, but a lot of us in our department got into animation because we want to just focus on storyboard art,” Kan said. “And it’s not just 2D. They’re trying to merge CG layout into storyboarding and most storyboard artists don’t know how to do CG and they’re not giving us the time and money to train for that.”

Like other IATSE locals and Hollywood labor unions, TAG is also fighting to end the pay gap between shows made for streaming services and those made for broadcast and cable shows. With major studio animation wings like Cartoon Network Studios and DreamWorks Animation Television developing hit streaming shows like HBO Max’s “Infinity Train” and Netflix’s “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,” the genre is set to be a growing part of the struggle for streaming subscriptions.

And like the rest of Hollywood Labor, animators are demanding that studios no longer treat streaming as “new media” but as the new normal in the industry.

“So many shows that our animators make are watched by kids on streaming. What kid still watches them on cable these days?” she said.

IATSE animation bill rally

While the nationwide wave of labor strikes and unionizing — as well as IATSE’s near-strike last year — has drawn more public attention to the Animation Guild’s organizing, multiple members at the rally agreed that this current push has been more than three years in the making and truly began after the last AMPTP contract was ratified in 2018. Since then, Disney+, HBO Max and several other streamers have been launched, creating a wave of Hollywood worker engagement with unions that hasn’t been seen in decades.

“I remember when we’d only get a few dozen people for an event like this, and now there’s more than I’ve ever seen as a union member,” marveled Kan.

Wolinetz believes that IATSE’s organizing both for the TAG contract and the Hollywood Basic Agreement will roll over into next year’s round of talks for the DGA, WGA and SAG-AFTRA contract as entertainment labor shows a more unified front.

“I think it’s a great time for building connections not just across locals and unions but across industries,” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity, for example, for people gathering at this rally to support the Starbucks unionizing drive in L.A. If we are going to build a militant labor movement in Hollywood, we have to build those connections across different disciplines.”

While those connections are built, the Animation Guild is continuing its push to activate unionized animators and get them involved in the push for a better contract while added new studios to their ranks, Last month, TAG added production staff for the hit Adult Swim show “Rick and Morty” and Hulu adult animation series “Solar Opposites” to their list of unionized animation workers, though the guild said that the show’s producers Adult Swim and 20th Television have not voluntarily recognized the union.

As the struggle continues, Mairghread Scott, co-chair of the TAG Writers Committee, made a fiery speech at the Burbank rally telling members that the fight for a fairer Hollywood will last beyond this contract cycle, and that victory will require the work of every member.

“We protected these companies from a global pandemic without missing a beat! We are more than enough to make real change!” she exclaimed to a cheering crowd. “But how do we do it? Find a committee and join. Go past internet activism and organize with your crafts and communities! […] We need you to find the person that never goes to meetings and get them involved. Every day we are proving our strength, but we can only be strong enough if every single one of us gets off the sidelines and into the fight.”

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