Labor unions make Hollywood run

Sunday, November 10, 2019 - 4:33pm



Earlier in the year, the animators of one of Netflix’s long-running originals, “Bojack Horseman,” ratified a contract with The Animation Guild (TAG) to formally unionize and benefit from the protections that their colleagues in the writing and acting areas of the show were already receiving. It’s worth taking a deeper dive into just why such a move was important and how organized labor already plays a big part in the production of TV.

The Animation Guild in particular already serves most of Netflix’s animated shows produced in-house in Los Angeles. At its core, TAG, like any organized labor union, advocates for its members by way of establishing wage minimums, providing health benefits and negotiating with bosses. Specifically, TAG’s collective bargaining agreement ensures that time worked in excess of 40 hours a week will be paid at a higher hourly rate than the standard and provides provisions for dismissal pay.

Despite its relative stability in the present day, TAG’s history shows that the major studios in Hollywood have always attempted to withold any semblance of protection to some of its most essential workers. For example, the website notes “In the 1970s, the subcontracting of television animation to foreign subcontractors, known as ‘runaway production’ began to seriously affect employment.” While TAG won a case guaranteeing local employment, by the 1980s, the studios gained the upper hand and eventually most animation work was sent abroad.

While an animation “renaissance” of sorts countered the decline of the 1980s, history always shows that without organized labor, the studio executives will always take decisions to undermine the livelihoods of the people that make their shows. Many of the animators and other types of artists are freelancers, the type of workers that large studios love to exploit even more so than usual, making organizations like TAG that facilitate collective bargaining essential.

The writers on “Bojack” are themselves part of a union, the Writers Guild of America (WGA). Founded as a response to studios slashing wages for its writers, it too has actively advocated for the army of writers spread out across the TV, film and media landscape. As recently as April of this year, thousands of WGA members fired their talent agents as part of a protest against packaging fees, in which talent agencies take a cut of profits from the shows they work with rather than commissioning their clients. The WGA contends that this pseudo-“backdoor” arrangement eliminates the incentives for the agency to maximize their clients’ pay.  

The brutally competitive world of Hollywood and the ruthlessness of the executives who rule it make it an absolute necessity for the workers (writers, actors, artists, sound engineers, etc.), who make the whole thing spin to use their collective power. As consumers, it is important for us to recognize the precariousness of the situations so many Hollywood workers find themselves in and therefore support the efforts to allow them to continue making the art we know and love.