When the authors of children’s cartoons like Sponge Bob SquarePants and Hi Arnold! attempted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) twenty years ago, Nickelodeon was quick to fight back.
The studio’s most popular programs were non-union, so these writers signed union clearance cards. An unfair labor practice (ULP) filing with the National Labor Relations Board alleged that the studio then illegally cut pay for pro-union writers on The adventures of Jimmy Neutron, genius boy. In response, the writers picketed the studio’s headquarters in Burbank, California.
The trade union campaign did not succeed. Eventually, writers for Nickelodeon shows joined International Alliance of Theater Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 839, The Animation Guild (TAG), which represents the majority of animation writers. As for the writers involved in Nickelodeon’s turn-of-the-century labor campaign, they were punished.
“Nickelodeon has blacklisted every single one of them,” says an animation writer with decades of industry experience who requested anonymity. More than a decade after the dispute, when a writer tried to hire one of the failed labor campaign participants for a show, he was told “that person won’t work here.”
Such vehement anti-unionism has a long history in animation studios. Walt Disney fiercely fought the Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG), the predecessor of Local 839, when its own cartoonists began to organize. When Art Babbitt, one of Disney’s star cartoonists — he was responsible for Goofy, the evil stepmother of White as snow, and Geppetto in Pinochio— helped lead the labor campaign, Disney fired him and twenty-three other workers, prompting a strike. It was in 1941; in 1947, Disney told Congress that the SCG was “taking orders from Moscow”. (Like a New York Daily News headline read at the time, “Communists Tried to Capture Mickey Mouse, Says Disney.”)
In 1952, writers from Disney and Warner Brothers formed TAG, but the union busting never went away. Indeed, workers say an animation studio always has a physical black book with the names and photos of blacklisted writers.
Animation writers’ roots in the art of storyboarding have drawn them away from live-action writers, who are represented by the WGA, and the result is a staggering disparity in salaries and benefits. (WGA represents Fox’s prime-time animation writers, including those of The simpsons and family guy, an arrangement that followed these writers—whose prime-time live experience increased their influence—having staged what were previously non-unionized shows at a union shop in the late 1990s.) These Animation writers, who make up about 10 percent of TAG’s roughly 3,000 members, are currently in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on a new three-year contract. Although these talks have received less attention than the IATSE contracts that have been (barely) ratified by 60,000 members of the film and television industry, they concern a workforce that is relegated to much worse standards than its live counterparts.
In negotiations, TAG editors are pushing for pay parity with WGA members. Animation writers earn at least $2,064 a week, while WGA weekly minimums range from $4,063 to $5,185 – this goes out to TAG writers earn 41 to 52 cents on the dollar per week compared to live writers. While experienced WGA writers can negotiate salaries well above minimums, animators have a harder time doing so, with studios refusing to pay above that minimum. Indeed, a former Nickelodeon writer said he made more money working for non-union reality shows than as an animation writer.
“I’ve worked on the biggest trashy reality TV shows you can think of, and I’ve made more money on those than at Nickelodeon, where I was writing for one of the most recognizable to the world,” he explains. While earning more per hour worked at Nickelodeon, the network only hired writers one day a week and did not tell them if they would be rehired for the following week until Friday, an unpredictable schedule that made difficult to find a second job.
Hosts, both on television and in film, also don’t get the same residue as WGA productions, no matter how successful they create. Their residue goes to fund the union health plan, rather than arriving in their mailbox as a check – on a blockbuster feature film, that can mean a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars – an arrangement that has long been a point of contention for some animators.
Like Mairghread Scott, the chairman of the union’s writers’ committee, who wrote about the guardians of the galaxy and Transformers animated series, narrated Variety, “There is no difference in quality and no difference in difficulty. We deserve to be paid commensurately with writers doing the same work.
“Say you write for Expert: Miami, and you create a new coroner character, and that character becomes a fan favorite, so they decide they’re going to create that character,” the longtime animation writer explains:
You get credit for creating this character and you will be paid as such. In animation, where we’re creating characters for these shows all the time, we get nothing. The studio owns it, because all of our contracts are actually employment contracts.
In addition to the disparity in remuneration, there is the question of credits. Animation scriptwriters get writer or story editor credit, but nothing more, like producer credit, until they direct a show. WGA broadcasts, on the other hand, treat staff writing and story editing as lower positions, with more senior writers getting extra credits. This makes it harder for animation writers to work live without starting from scratch, no matter how many decades of experience they may have. The animation writers have long been calling for a change in credits, but say negotiations were unsuccessful because a change in credits should also be reflected in writers’ pay.
“A lot of people don’t know about the disparity in salaries and wages, and a lot of that is because animation writers don’t like to talk about it, because there’s a stigma,” says the writer. animation. “In this industry, your value is tied to what you earn and because animation writers earn less, we are considered less and we see ourselves as less.”
This is a strange incongruity given the popularity and longevity of anime shows. Paramount+, ViacomCBS’ streaming service, cited its Nickelodeon offerings as a key driver of subscriptions and engagement in 2021, with more than half of the service’s users watching Nickelodeon shows. Many cartoons are timeless, which makes them a reliable profit generator – a Spongebob the episode performs about as well today as it did twenty years ago, and audiences reliably buy the cartoon merchandise. Additionally, the visual humor of cartoons allows for easy translation across borders.
Yet the disparity remains. Given the continued proliferation of animated television and films, if the disparity is not resolved in this round of contract negotiations, which is expected to resume in early 2022, calls to resolve the issue will only grow. intensify.
“Animation writers do the same job, with the same process, as live-action writers, and as the pandemic has proven, it’s easier for bosses to make money off the work of hosts,” the former Nickelodeon writer explains. “If what Americans are doing is producing content, if that’s a lot of the manufacturing that this country is doing now, then at the very least we should be paid fairly for it.”