Is Disney union-busting?

Hollywood animators fear the Mouse House has a secret agenda -- destroying Cartoonists Local 839.

By Gregg Kilday

Published June 15, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Last month, an anonymous e-mail began ricocheting through Hollywood's tight-knit animation community. The message -- "The Invisible Studio signs an Invisible Deal with the Invisible Union" -- accused the Walt Disney Co. of striking an unholy alliance with IATSE, the national labor union that represents artists, craftspeople and technicians throughout the entertainment industry.

The e-mail charged, among other allegations, that the two parties had agreed to a deal that would essentially allow the studio to cut salaries and freeze out the cartoonists' own local, eliminating the animators' collective muscle.

These threats didn't exactly hearten the animation industry. Though 'toons appear to be flooding the multiplex, the past few years in Hollywood have brought steady layoffs for animators; others were forced from full-time employment and found themselves competing on a job-by-job basis. Suddenly, animators who'd once enjoyed six-figure incomes were facing an uncertain future.

Now, just as audiences were applauding state-of-the-art effects in movies like "Dinosaur" -- which climbed past $110 million last weekend -- here was Disney plotting to ensure that its future CGI projects wouldn't be an automatic gravy train for the animators who labor on them. The e-mail sent shockwaves through an already-besieged profession.

Practically speaking, though, the e-mail was in effect too late. Earlier this year, Disney and IATSE had already agreed to a new contract that would now cover approximately 100 to 150 animators working at the Secret Lab, Disney's brand new CGI-animation unit (its first on-screen mention comes in the closing credits of "Dinosaur").

On the surface, the notion of Disney agreeing to union protections for previously unrepresented workers would appear to be a good thing. But according to the e-mail, the IATSE had actually gone behind the back of its own Local 839 (the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists) and struck a deal that undercuts existing pay rates for CGI animators in the 839's current contract. If this new agreement stands -- and spreads, as IATSE hopes, to other CGI effects houses such as Sony Imageworks and Digital Domain -- the e-mail apocalyptically warned: It "would basically hollow out the animators union from within and leave it an impotent husk."

The e-mail left many in Hollywood scratching their heads. If the charges in the explosive message (which quickly turned up for all to read on a Web site called Animation Nation that bills itself as "the voice of the animation industry") are correct, the IATSE had to answer a big question: Why would it accept a deal that cut its own cartoonists' local off at the knees?

First, a brief look of the players involved and their respective interests:

The IA: IATSE is an acronym for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States and Canada. With more than 90,000 members, it embraces the various locals -- from grips to makeup artists to set designers -- that represent Hollywood craftsmen. What it does not cover are the burgeoning ranks of CGI workers, who have begun turning out everything from visual effects for movies to Shockwave animations for movie-related Web sites. At the IATSE's '98 convention in Montreal, president Tom Short placed organizing the industry's CGI drones at the top of his to-do list. The CGI special-effects industry, he acknowledged, "presents a unique challenge to the IATSE and its organizing efforts" -- especially since lots of CGI talent tends to be young, entrepreneurial and not particularly pro-union.

Disney: Eisner and Co. have jumped enthusiastically into the CGI business. In 1996, Disney acquired DreamQuest, an f/x house founded in 1979 that had already done work for such bombastic Disney movies as "The Rock." Disney initially put DreamQuest in charge of its in-house f/x work, churning out threatening meteors and crashing airplanes for movies like "Armageddon" and ""Con Air." It also began assigning actual character animation, like birthing a litter of cuddly CGI puppies for its upcoming sequel ""102 Dalmatians." That meant Dreamquest had begun mining the same territory as Disney's own Feature Animation Division, which has been experimenting with its own CGI elements, like the lavish ballroom set seen in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" and full-scale CGI character animation with "Dinosaurs."

Last October, Disney decided to rearrange a little furniture: It retired DreamQuest's name, combined CGI f/x designers and animators from both the Feature Animation Division and DreamQuest into a new unit, and dubbed it the Secret Lab. "It seemed logical to bring the two groups together," Thomas Schumacher, president of feature animation, told Daily Variety at the time, "instead of having us compete for the same business." Overnight, "Dinosaur," which had been in the works for several years, was re-christened a Secret Lab project. This also meant that animators, working under the Cartoonists 839 contract, were now toiling under the same roof as non-union craftsmen.

Local 839.: From a high of about 3,000 members in 1996 (the peak of the animation boom), the cartoonists' local now represents approximately 2,800 animators. Among the various job categories in its current industry contract -- which is up for renewal in August -- CGI animators are guaranteed a minimum of $30 an hour. While many animators earn more -- a handful of superstar animators pull down more than $1 million a year -- a '99 wage survey conducted by the local documented a median average wage for CGI animators of $1,800 a week, or $45 an hour. Last June, when Disney first began talking of merging the non-union DreamQuest with its unionized Feature Animation Division, the IA's Short, Disney's Schumacher and reps from various locals like the Photographers Guild and the Editors Guild began a series of quiet talks, with 839 proposing using its existing CGI provisions as a template for the new agreement.

So, what exactly went down?

Getting an answer out of any of the participants turns up more brick walls than Wile E. Coyote ran into. Short was unavailable. Les Blanchard, the official IA point man for the new agreement, bluntly told me: "I don't talk to reporters. Why don't you talk to Disney?" Schumacher and other Disney executives weren't any more eager to explain themselves. They all turned down repeated requests for comment.

Manwhile, Disney's animators (fearful, presumably, for their own job security) were just as close-lipped -- literally slamming down the phone when they realized a reporter was on the line. Animator Tom Sito, the 839 president who happens to be currently overseeing Warner's "Osmosis Jones," pled too busy -- via e-mail -- to discuss the issue. The local's business rep, Steve Hulett, also refused to comment. Still, from conversations held elsewhere in the animation community -- which has been watching developments with some anxiety -- the story emerges.

Instead of offering 839's contract to animators at the Secret Lab, the IATSE and Disney -- over objections from 839 itself -- brokered a new deal: the TSL agreement, which will allow the Lab's animators to be represented directly by the IA instead of the local. When terms of the deal were first laid out last December, there were cries of protest from non-unionized TSL animators (who didn't like its original pension provisions) and unionized 839 animators (who saw it as a dangerous precedent that could undermine their own pay rates).

To quell the protest, Disney backed down on a few issues: The original deal called for a 50-hour work week. That was revised to 40 hours per week, the standard in the 839 contract; minimums were revised upward. In its present form, the contract offers CGI animators a $28/hour minimum (versus 839's $30/hour) -- a difference of $80 per week for animators working for scale. It will have an even greater impact on trainees, who are offered a minimum $13/hour versus the $18/hour stipulated in the 839 contract.

"I don't think the contract will have an effect on the veterans with experience -- they already work for more than the minimum rates," says one observer. "It's the new people coming into the industry who are going to get screwed."

The screwing may be about to begin.

Now that Disney has tossed together veterans from its Feature Animation Division with its former DreamQuest employees under its new TSL banner, even the veterans are nervous. Their fear is that when their individual contracts come up for renewal, they'll be pressured to re-up under the lesser TSL contract. If that were to happen -- a big if, since there is no evidence it has happened to date -- it would start to thin the ranks of Local 839. As one angry poster on the Animation Nation bulletin board wrote: "Disney has been orchestrating this entire thing since the beginning. Now they're working with IATSE to destroy 839. Guess they need more money to buy another trillion-dollar network."

Nevertheless, despite calls on the board for affected animators to file a decertification petition with the National Labor Relations Board -- on the grounds that workers were not offered a vote on the new contract -- a June 1 deadline has passed without any suggestion that anyone came forward to file a formal complaint.

So, for the moment, this is where the issue stands (barring any further revisions of the new TSL contract). "Disney could still back off," one source who's been following the saga predicts. "If they have huge morale problems, and the money issues look minuscule, they're not stupid -- they'll weigh the issues and back off the TSL rates." But Disney has every reason to be happy with the new arrangement, which allows it to save a few bucks by allowing for two-tiered pay scales at the Secret Lab. So does the IA, which can now use its Disney-bartered agreement to try to win contracts at Imageworks and Digital Domain -- even if that means 839 be damned.

As for members of Cartoonists Local 839 -- the situation may not be quite as dire as that alarmist e-mail first suggested. Still, a lot of members can't help feeling like they've just had several of those big Acme anvils dropped on their heads.

Gregg Kilday

Gregg Kilday, a writer in Los Angeles, writes regularly about the movie business.

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