The contract ratified after the New Deal for Animation movement in 2022 has stopped The Animation Guild (TAG) from striking until 2024. There are a number of concerns from animators within the industry that may come up should TAG decide to strike upon the current contract’s expiration.
With the WGA strikes recently ended and the SAG-AFTRA strikes ongoing, many people have been exposed to just how bad things have gotten in artistic industries such as acting and writing. One such creative union voiced its support of the strikes while being unable to do so themselves: The Animation Guild.
The Animation Guild (TAG), IATSE Local 839, is a labor union for animators founded in 1952 with a building in Burbank, CA. On May 2nd, 2023, TAG voiced its support for the WGA and their demands, as well as informing their own members on how they could avoid crossing the picket line. Yet, some wondered why a union for an industry facing its own issues, especially regarding pay and compensation among other issues, did not join in with their fellow creatives. The short answer is that they could not strike, at least not at this time. For the long answer, we need to look back one year ago during the New Deal for Animation Strikes.
In July of 2021, the labor contract between Hollywood Studios and TAG had expired, yet work continued for eight months after its expiration as the talks over wages and working conditions continued without much progress. Frustrations had been mounting amongst animators as while the pandemic raged on, leaving live-action shows on indefinite hiatuses, animated shows continued as remote work was an effective option.
However differences in how artists within the industry were paid when compared to their counterparts were becoming more noticeable despite the studios’ reliance on them. A particular focus was put on those who wrote for animated shows. While it’s not uncommon for WGA contract writers to write for animation, more often than not those who write for animated shows are often union members of TAG.
Typically, it’s the choice of the studios as well whether an animated production counts as covered by either TAG or the WGA, complicating things further. One of the biggest differences between writers in these unions is how much they get paid. In July of 2022, Animation Guild Writers shared a graph online using the weekly minimums of both unions, showing that TAG writers make 47 to 60 cents on the dollar compared to WGA writers.
There were other concerns as well regarding the working conditions of studios. In 2018, animators had some of the highest turnover rates within the entertainment industry at 25.6% according to LinkedIn data. This is likely due to the fact that the industry has moved away from a staff-based workforce to a largely freelance workforce. Most animators work on a show or film as a freelancer for a limited time, then move to find work again once their contract ends.
“When you start working for a company like Disney or Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, you feel like it’s a dream come true,” storyboard artist and writer Nora Meek told More Perfect Union while attending a New Deal for Animation rally in March of 2022, “But as you keep working, you know, and sacrificing your lives for these companies you start realizing that you might be taken advantage of in certain circumstances.” These were weighing heavy on the minds of Guild members as negotiations continued.
Eventually, on May 26th, 2022, TAG came to a tentative agreement with the AMPTP, with notable gains being retroactive wage increases, wage minimums for works made for streaming, gains for animation writers with their own job classification and progression ladder, and the creation of a Labor-Management Cooperative Committee to address issues specific to certain studios to name a few.
The three-year contract was ratified in July of that year with an 87% vote. Notably, Steve Kaplan, a TAG business representative, implied more work was yet to be done in a statement saying, “While we have achieved significant gains, we were not able to reach all the priorities we set out to achieve and that our members deserve.”
Only about a month later in August, a new issue raised its head as Warner Bros. Discovery removed much of its animated content from HBO Max to cut costs and save on residual pay. Of the 36 titles pulled, 24 of them were animated shows. Due to the lack of physical releases and broadcast airings, some shows pulled are now no longer available to watch legally, only preserved via pirating. Tig n’ Seek was one such show, with art director Levon Jihanian, saying online, “It’s gone. They’re all gone. Like, yeah. I can go on a pirate streaming website to watch episodes, but my kids can’t. I made this for them.”
It is pertinent to note, in case readers are not aware, that animation is a labor-intensive medium. To give an idea of how much work goes into the process, a 30-minute episode of an animated show, from script to completion, takes nine months on average to complete, while animated feature films take anywhere from four to seven years. This is assuming that the studio in question has a whole host of animators working on the project, as independent productions could take far longer due to smaller team sizes and budgets.
Julia Pott, creator of Summer Camp Island, puts it succinctly, “We worked for five years to make 100 episodes of animation. We worked late into the night, we let ourselves go, we were a family of hard-working artists who wanted to make something beautiful, and HBO MAX just pulled them all like we were nothing. Animation is not nothing!”
Later in the year, Warner Bros. Discovery would end up laying off 125 workers while restructuring Cartoon Network Studios, and Netflix would end up canceling 11 of its animated shows, some of which had yet to air. Gloria Shen, a writer who has worked on shows such as Amphibia and The Loud House, pointed to one of several reasons why these moves concern animators, especially in regard to their work.
“With the HBO Max things, and Netflix, and the fact they’re axing a lot of shoes before they even air or stream, is that whoever worked on that show doesn’t get an onscreen credit. So that’s actually something you can’t put on your IMDB.” This makes it harder for animators to build out their resumes and secure their next job.
One such show that was canned before it got to air, Boons, and Curses, was celebrating the completion of its first episode when the team was told that the show was canceled. The creators, Jaydeep Hasrajani and Jake Goldman spoke with IGN about how cancellations like this end up affecting the cast and crew’s livelihood. Hasrajiani is quoted saying, “What a lot of people don’t understand is that having a career in animation is gig to gig.
You work your butt off to get onto an awesome project, that project lasts around a year or two, and then you have to hustle your butt off again to land the next gig. So when you have studios who cancel shows that have been greenlit, you cut short the financial plans people have to maintain a livelihood.”
“With no contract or severance protections in place, people can have months to years of contracted work pulled from them suddenly”, co-creator Goldman says, “It’s a manufactured volatility that is 100% not created by the people working on these shows, and yet they are the ones who have to catch the brunt of it.”
Even with the victories of the strike, Chad Quandt, a writer, showrunner, and producer in animation, points out that animators are still paid pennies compared to their live-action counterparts. Trying to find leverage by citing the popularity of a show only goes so far as well, especially considering that, as Quandt says, “The streamers like to keep the numbers private and talk more in generalities. They may say ‘You’re doing good. I mean, not as good as Boss Baby, but you’re good.’ And then you go home and sit and think about whatever that could mean for three months.”
A continuing trend of canceled shows, layoffs, and shows pulled from the only platforms that they are legally available on has left many animators feeling equal parts frustrated and concerned. As such, murmurs of an upcoming strike for TAG have been circulating. However, the current contract ratified back in July of 2022 stops the union from striking until it runs out in 2024. Some, however, are using the visibility of the current entertainment strikes to not only voice their support but to inform people of similar issues faced by the animation industry.
For one, while the WGA does receive residuals for work, a point of contention within the strikes as those checks become smaller and legal loopholes allow companies to avoid paying them, TAG writers and storyboarders receive no residual pay for their work. Spencer Rothbell, a writer and voice actor who has worked on Clarence and Victor and Valentino, wrote a series of tweets saying, “WGA – everything you’re fighting for, TAG needs x 1000…if we get to where you are, I hope you back us up.”
While TAG itself is unable to strike, animators who are part of the union were encouraged to show their support not just through solidarity online, but by being physically present to march the picket line with the WGA. In one case, Crystal Kan, a story artist, came to a picket with Taggy the puppet, a puppet of TAG’s own logo.
The success of the WGA strike could be attributed to the solidarity from other unions and parts of the entertainment industry, such as SAG-AFTRA. Past WGA strikes have failed in some way due to divisions, whether internal ones within the union or divisions between other unions themselves. The recent strikes are so striking due to the sheer unity between the two parties towards a similar goal. Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz spoke to NPR about the then ongoing joint strike speaking of the strength in numbers, stating, “I think undoubtedly that will lead to a better deal for the actors. I don’t know if it’ll lead to a good deal, but it’ll lead to a better deal.”
Erin Hill, an associate professor of media and popular culture at UC San Diego also spoke to NPR, talking about how public support has been key within the strikes. She says, “They stand for something that people, I think, are also feeling in their jobs, where they don’t have the power to negotiate against somebody who’s saying, ‘You know what I would like you to work from home and just be moving your mouse 12 hours a day and I also want you to do X, Y, and Z and I’m going to time you,’ or whatever it is. They don’t have that power. I think Hollywood needs to do it now, and I’m proud that they’re doing it.”
TAG will likely try to seek out similar support should it decide to strike once its contract runs out. Rothbell’s own tweets continue, pushing for TAG members to take note of the WGA and SAG during the strikes, saying, “They owe us big time and continue to act like animation is second tier, disposable kids fare instead of the artform (and cash show for them!!) that it is.”