When Emily Gossmann was hunting for her first job after graduating in 2013, professors gave her a piece of advice: “Look for the old guys.”
“I call them an indicator species—like frogs in a pond or something like that. The idea is if the old guys are here, then this show probably isn’t too bad to work on,” says Gossmann.
Nearly a decade into her career, Gossmann—an animator at Titmouse—realized that finding a good place to work wasn’t always that easy. Instead, she has watched many of her colleagues, former classmates and friends burn out and leave the animation industry altogether.
This generation wasn’t going to stick around to become the “old guys” because, while the expectations around animation have evolved, the pay and other working conditions largely have not, she says.
Gossmann and her Titmouse colleagues wanted to change that, so they unionized. In September 2021, Titmouse’s Vancouver studio became the second animation studio in Canada to ratify a union agreement, joining Montreal-based Oasis Animation, which signed its own deal in June. Other studios in North America are following suit, including Nova Scotia-based Jam Filled, which had its first union drive earlier this year.
While the entertainment industry at large is heavily unionized, and countries like France and the UK have had animation unions for a long time, the industry in North America has largely been an outlier. There are some unionized pockets. For example, LA’s Animation Guild (TAG)—a local IATSE branch—represents animation employees of large studios such as Disney and DreamWorks and the smaller shops that service them.
But things are changing. “There’s definitely a growing interest following the success of the ratification vote at Titmouse,” says IATSE international representative Jeremy Salter. “More and more, workers are coming forward wanting to talk about how to improve their working conditions with a union.”
In the US, support for unions more broadly has risen to a 65% approval rating, according to polling company Gallup. While many attribute this increase to the pandemic, animators say the push at the animation studios actually started long before COVID-19 swept the globe.
In 2019, a crowdsourced online Animation Wage Share analysis found that animation workers in Western Canada were burning out and leaving the industry after an average of five to 10 years—a very short career for the entertainment industry.
“Studios are hiring young people and relying on them to use that young energy to work a lot of unpaid hours,” Gossmann says. “A lot of work is done on the backs of kids fresh out of school who don’t know how to recognize unrealistic expectations.”
So when Titmouse’s union (local 938 branch of IATSE) hammered out its agreement with the executives, one of the most important collective bargaining points was to get entry-level employees a pay bump. Oasis Animation’s union president Calvin Brett says his union group pushed for a similar raise.
Higher wages are typically what scare employers about unions. A starting animator at a non-unionized studio makes around US$30,000, whereas an employee of the same seniority who is a member of TAG would make closer to US$75,000, according to its master agreement.
At the recently launched Oasis and Titmouse unions, parties negotiated a more palatable US$40,000 for entry-level employees. Union reps, including Gossmann and Brett, say they recognize that while US$75,000 might sound nice, the reality is those agreements have been in place (and steadily rising) since the 1950s. Imposing the same collective agreement costs on studios without a history of unionization would be unrealistic.
“An overnight change like that isn’t going to be sustainable for anybody,” says Gossmann. “Companies like Titmouse have shows [that are planned] out months— sometimes years—in advance. If you suddenly ask them to double or triple your wages, it’s going to be [like getting] blood from a stone. Even the most kind-hearted boss can’t make money just appear.”
Increased wages may actually be a benefit to employers, says Jason Foster, PhD and associate professor of human resources and labor relations at Athabasca University. When wages go up, a company’s workforce usually becomes more stable with less turnover, which saves employers money in the long run, he says. This is especially true when an industry reaches critical mass of unionization (usually around a third of any given industry).
When a region achieves critical mass, businesses often have to follow suit or risk losing out on talent and work, says Foster.
Los Angeles has already reached that critical mass. TAG has been around since the 1950s and represents approximately 6,000 members. Because the union is transparent about its collective agreement, most companies in the area follow the same pay scale, which keeps studios from outbidding each other for talent.
This means TAG can focus on other issues, like talent acquisition and retention, says Steve Kaplan, a business representative for The Animation Guild.
“We hear from a lot of people who want to come to Los Angeles because of the working conditions,” says Kaplan. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that animation work outside of LA continues to stagnate or be depressed as far as working conditions are concerned.”
However, despite the positives, it’s still an uphill battle to convince organizations to allow unionization.
“The single biggest downside for a business is control,” says Athabasca University’s Foster. “When you have a unionized workplace, the scope of management’s control over the workers—and how things happen in the workplace—diminishes because you have to negotiate that. You lose the ability to unilaterally make decisions on certain things.”
On the flip side, unions can create a system that provides more power to the smaller studio, particularly when dealing with larger clients, says Foster.
Take, for example, a client that wants a big change to the show made late in the game. Animators are often recruited to work longer hours, sometimes for months at a time, to get things done. Having a union in place means there’s a contractual obligation that wages, work hours and conditions remain predictable, says Foster. Overtime is required to be paid at a higher rate, if it’s allowed at all.
Studios with a union in place can shift the onus back onto their clients to pay for changes, especially the ones that need to be done quickly.
“These union agreements make it easier for us to advocate on the artists’ behalf to the clients that determine the budgets and the schedules,” according to Titmouse founder and president Chris Prynoski in an email to Kidscreen. The increased unionization of the animation industry may also mean a mindset shift for business owners, says Foster. While they might not be able to compete on price anymore, that doesn’t mean a unionized studio can’t be competitive.
“In an industry where quality really matters, the studios that are unionized might actually gain a different kind of competitive advantage—[they could] be more reliable in meeting timelines, and the quality of the work could improve,” says Foster. “If you’re the cheapest, but cutting corners and missing deadlines, then that’s not good for business.”
It’s too early to know if more studios will unionize in a wave that ripples across North America, or if this will just be a blip.
“I think we’re in a big generational period of labor growth,” says Titmouse’s Gossmann. “I think we’re in a North American-wide labor push where people are doing a lot of things that they didn’t feel emboldened to do before. The pandemic made people say, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to try.'”
This story originally appeared in Kidscreen’s Feb/March 2022 magazine.