Please enjoy this guest blogpost from Jason Mayer, an executive board member for The Animation Guild, Local 839 in Los Angeles and an fx artist working at DreamWorks Animation.
What? I Got a Job!
I began my film VFX career in my mid 20’s. I had a BFA and an MFA and a six figure student loan. On my first feature film credit, I worked about 65 to 90 hours a week with an hourly salary only slightly greater than what I had been making at Best Buy. LA rents were double and I had to live on couches for a few months before settling into a 2 bedroom apartment with 3 people. I had no medical or dental insurance, 0 sick days, 0 vacation days, and 0 retirement contributions. That first feature film grossed over half a billion and won the BAFTA for VFX.
After almost 2 years, I left VFX behind and moved to an animation studio covered by IATSE’s Local 839 Union. I was so ill prepared for the increased quality of life standards, I negotiated to receive the union minimum for my job classification. It was still a huge salary increase, so I was happy. I will admit being highly skeptical of being forced to join a union for a job, the initiation fees were a significant amount of money to me at the time.
I turned 30, got married, began a family, and bought a house. Health insurance and paid time off became much more important to me and so the union began to return value. I also began to notice other protections, especially with overtime that would help curb against late changing production schedule decisions. For instance, if you are asked to come in on a 6th day(Saturday) they would have to pay you for a minimum of 4 hours, so no being expected to stop by and monitor weekend renders. Also you were limited to 14 actual hours from starting work in a day before getting doubletime pay, so no weird hours with long unpaid midday breaks. Doubletime kicked in sooner on the 6th and 7th days.
As I approached 40, planning for the future became more important, retirement, kids college, investments. I was pleasantly surprised when I began digging into the pension and retirement planning aspects of the union benefits. After 5 years, I had vested in a monthly retirement benefit for myself with survivorship of my spouse. There was also a 2nd pension which was approaching a six figure lump sum for my 11 years of participation in the union. I still look forward to qualifying for lifetime secondary health care for me and my wife at 15 years, and early retirement without penalty on my monthly benefit. These are all benefits fully funded by studio contributions with nothing out of my pocket as a result of the union agreements.
But Won’t The Studios Hate Me?
The Union is not an adversarial entity to a studio. There is some friction at times, but there is also a clear grievance and arbitration route for those frictions. The friction is also very infrequent, most of the time the union and studio just coexist. Ultimately they are working towards related goals, the studio wants the most productivity out of their employees to maximize profits and the union wants its members to be happy. Employees work best and are most focused when they know they have stability, good health care and a future. Working at their best insures higher productivity and better morale which makes it easier to recruit top talent. More top talent leads to even more productivity and potentially better results. All these things help the bottom line. There are many very successful non-union companies that take this worker happiness philosophy in to account with their compensation packages like Facebook, Netflix or Google to name a few. A union forces the quality of life increases to employees which can help increase happiness and productivity.
But Your Union is Only Animation.
Local 839 has about 1/4 to 1/3 of it’s membership in roles that directly overlap with VFX jobs, compositing, character animation, cloth/hair, fx, modeling, texture painting, lighting, etc. Having experienced the increase in quality of life a union brings, it can be a tough sell for those artists and technicians to return or move to a non-union VFX job. Having a global union community would help companies recruit for talent that they wouldn’t normally have access to. I would personally enjoy returning to do some live action fx work, but even if I were paid far more than my current salary, the union benefits, and quality of life would make it an almost unworkable option.
So If You Only Want to Read One Part Of This.
The Animation Guild (local 839) has been around for over 50 years and has had high and low points. I think we are currently in a high point, membership is still growing to an all time high and feature and television animation production in LA is still strong despite global competition and attempts at outsourcing. The problem an established organization like this faces in the good times is apathy of its membership. The protections the union provides helps its members the most through the bad times, but unless you have the good times to give you leverage and a vitalized membership, you can’t negotiate for those protections. We already have a contract in place, creating a new one is going to be challenging for you. It will not just form on its own. A union is like any organization, it can only be as strong as its members. I would urge you to take your chance now while you have momentum and there are lots of jobs currently available in your area. If the industry takes a downturn, unionizing will be near impossible to do until the industry comes back up. Keep in mind, these productions can not be made without you. The artistry and technical prowess you contribute is a valuable resource and there are not any reasons you shouldn’t have a happy and healthy life pursuing it.