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A Discussion Among Unions - 100% Union Power at Little Secret

by Kalai Chik,

Members from the animation, gaming, voice acting, and VFX industries came together to discuss unionization efforts across games, VFX, animation, and voice acting. Initially scheduled for October 11, the 100% Union Power event was moved to the night of November 11 to accommodate a longer-term cross-union strategy. Speakers included Kyle McCarley and David Errigo Jr. (CODA), Jessica Gonzalez (ABK Workers Alliance), Mark Patch (VFX Union), and Kallan Zimmerman (Animation Guild). Moderated by Evie, an organizer for Stripper Strike and a career animator, the five panelists shared their personal struggles, walked through the history of union efforts, and demystified the work behind creating a united front.

The event began with an introduction from each panelist as well as their involvement in unionization. Zimmerman kicked off the discussion with her background as a production manager on Hulu's Solar Opposites. She explained that her interest in the movement was to get production workers included in the animation guild since, historically, only artists have been part of the guild.

Following up on Crunchyroll's decision to recast characters in Mob Psycho 100's third season, Kyle McCarley divulged details about how #JustAMeeting came to be later in the panel. He recalled how the Coalition of Dubbing Actors (CODA) started when members of Screen Actors Guild-Association of Film, Television, and Radio Actors (SAG-AFTRA) took him out to coffee and asked his thoughts on the animation industry. They hosted the first organizing meeting in his living room and efforts “snowballed from there.”

QA professional, Jessica Gonzalez, prefaced her origins in organizing when the Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Blizzard for widespread sexual harassment and discrimination. Given the company's response, she wanted to help make companies more accountable for their actions. Through CODE-CWA, they unionized the first QA team in a triple-A studio: Raven Software at Activision Blizzard. Currently, they're also at the bargaining table, but as Gonzalez frankly put it, “this doesn't mean Activision is being nice.” She hopes to unionize all triple-A studios and indie studios.

Representing the VFX Union with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Mark Patch works as a production worker in visual effects. He explained his reason for participating in this event as “giving a voice to the voiceless” because VFX artists should have a seat “at the bargaining table just like everyone else.” He stressed the lack of recognition and understanding of the labor put into big feature films such as Iron Man and Star Wars. “There are dozens of visual effects workers on the crew…who are working and being exploited. Giving up their nights, their weekends, and their physical and mental health in order to deliver that product,” said Patch.

David Errigo Jr., the current voice of Ferb from Phineas and Ferb, spoke to his background in union activism through examples set for him by people he respected in the industry. He works exclusively union jobs, a rarity in the voice acting space. However, he lamented how most voice-over talent will “work either side of the card or will go Fi-Core.” Financial core, or Fi-Core, allows some actors to work on union and non-union projects. Because of the work of his predecessors who helped Errigo get to where he is now, he expressed his desire to pay it forward. He is now the chair of the dubbing committee at SAG-AFTRA.

After the introductions, the panel discussion moved into a historical overview of unionization efforts within those industries. Gonzalez looked back on the initial efforts to organize within Blizzard, which began as small units moving separately. “Even if it's not mentioning the word 'union,' someone is asking about how much you're making.” While there's no definitive ‘first’ in the timeline of unionization in the games industry, the inklings of discontent with the status quo would eventually lead to action. In contrast, Patch brought up how VFX was “taken out of the union system in 1977 by Industrial Light & Magic, and Star Wars.” Unfortunately, they are still dealing with the repercussions now, and their workload has only increased during the pandemic. Yet, the work-from-home environment allowed for more workers to start organizing.

Zimmerman agreed that the barrier of collectively gathering in person hindered efforts in the past. “I only remember there being one meeting that was poorly attended because the animation guild doesn't have great parking,” she joked. Now with online meetings, they hosted a large production town hall, where hundreds of production workers from all the studios came to listen and share their stories.

Errigo and McCarley focused on their organizing work within dubbing. Back in 2018, when McCarley had the coffee meeting with SAG-AFTRA organizers, only sixteen projects were union and the rest non-union. Even the union contract that covered dubbing was drafted in 2001 and had “stagnated since 2003.” With the help of SAG-AFTRA, they helped CODA lay out its strategy and next steps. To McCarley and Errigo, the most important action was to “compile a list of people who had dubbing credits at one specific studio in Los Angeles.” Once they could connect individually with those actors, they began asking for their thoughts on the status quo. They would eventually ask if they were willing to sign an open letter to the industry at large to improve working conditions.

“It should be said that the mission of CODA was not to make everything go union,” said Errigo. “Just to make that space better.” They credited Katie Watson, who was the head of the national voiceover department at SAG-AFTRA, with adding a dubbing contract specific to Netflix. This became the turning point because, as a result, it unionized everything that Netflix was dubbing. As Errigo explained, this increase in unionized work helped to balloon the number of union production across studios from “sixteen to over a hundred in less than two years.” The saturation encouraged the community to turn down lower-rate work as they started seeing the possibilities of higher-paying jobs, which later helped during the revamp of the promulgated agreement. They further elaborated how CODA “helped to normalize a new non-union standard rate” because non-union performers didn't have to undercut union rates.

Closing off the discussion, Evie asked about people's hesitations about joining unions. The five panelists addressed concerns and offered solutions to challenges they've seen in their industries. Arguably, the biggest hurdle is demystifying unions in the minds of workers. They fear retaliation from employers, and companies use that to their advantage.

“There's a real culture of silence in visual effects, games, and animation,” said Patch. “People seem to think that an NDA might have some sort of magical power and take away your federal rights to organize, but that's not true.” Companies have the advantage as they have the complete lists of employees, whereas organizations have the uphill battle of gathering crew lists and contacting other workers. “The number one thing that people should understand is that you have the power. You have rights. The law gives you rights, but more so as a union,” said Patch.

McCarley echoed Gonzalez's early point of worker concerns over being the first person to put their neck on the line. When gathering signatures for CODA, McCarley reassured other actors that they would be able to stay anonymous until they had “70% of their target.” This way, they would be protected by other names in the industry.

Often, the ones who are most able to help lead by example and mobilize union efforts are the ones who have job stability. McCarley put his role as Mob on the line to get Crunchyroll to sit down for #JustAMeeting. Ultimately, Crunchyroll did not come to the table, and McCarley lost that job. But he shrugged and said he was doing alright.

“I think people have respect when people like you stand up and do things, even if it is hard,” said Errigo. “For them, that immediate loss and the long-term impact is only for the betterment of the entire industry, and people see that.”

Other challenges include union busting via intimidation tactics both in and outside the company. At Blizzard, Gonzalez was approached by coworkers who feared losing their visas and outsiders who accused her of being “anti-worker.” Similar to McCarley, Gonzalez was willing to risk her job as she felt she would be fine regardless. Although people often look for successful examples as an anchor for union efforts, other forms of solidarity help reinforce the road to unionization. She assuaged concerns about being “the face” of the movement. Whether it's educating others or collecting contact information in a spreadsheet, Gonzalez emphasized the importance of these efforts in mobilization.

For the team on Solar Opposites, the challenge in her studio was that her crew felt unionizing would be a personal betrayal to their producers. “This is about our livelihood, and it's not a personal jab,” said Zimmerman. She also experienced direct pressure from her employer. The company's lawyer made her sit through a National Labor Relations Board hearing. The tactic was to try and exclude production managers from the union under the guise that they are supervisors under the law. In the end, the intimidation didn't work.

From the various discussions between the panelists, the primary strategy behind unionization in any industry is to communicate and combine efforts. Decode the fears, demystify the organization process, and build a united front. Despite the many strides made in the past year, the industry still has a long road ahead.

After the panel, Errigo and McCarley spoke to ANN about future events and the reality of the current dubbing environment.

Why do you think people are confused about unionizing?

McCarley: There's a fear that SAG-AFTRA is the boogieman, which has been perpetuated by productions because it works to their advantage. In voice-over, there are a lot of people who work both sides. They just don't talk about it. What got me to a point where I feel comfortable talking about it is because I stopped working non-union.

Are the number of non-union dubbing jobs still far outweighing union jobs?

McCarley: You'd be surprised at how much is happening union when you factor in the number of live-action dubbing. When it comes to anime, I would say that 20% of shows on a union contract is probably optimistic.

Errigo: I would agree with that.

McCarley: Because Crunchyroll produces so much. Between Crunchyroll and Funimation, that's the vast majority of anime. The only other players are Netflix, Viz, and Aniplex.

Errigo: Thank god for Aniplex.

McCarley: They're great and they're owned by Sony. I've been asked if I'll be in the upcoming NieR:Automata anime. The anime is being produced in Japan by Aniplex. If Aniplex keeps it for the dub, I see no problem. But if they turn it over to Crunchyroll, that's going to be a problem.

That leads to my next question: is it possible for Crunchyroll to use union contracts if Aniplex does?

McCarley: Crunchy and Funimation don't have union contracts, but they can utilize them. Occasionally, you'll see Crunchy do features as opposed to series.

What about the new One Piece movie?

Errigo & McCarley: That was probably not union.

McCarley: Cucuruz Doan's Island, the new Gundam movie that came out, was distributed by Crunchyroll but produced by Sunrise. Sunrise was the one that signed off on it, as they are an intermediary company. But before Funimation and Crunchyroll merged, Crunchyroll actually stepped in the way of it. NYAV Post worked on Fena: Pirate Princess because it was a joint thing between Adult Swim and Crunchyroll. Adult Swim was footing the bill and they were onboard for talking union. Crunchyroll stepped in and said no.

Errigo: It's rough trying to communicate with someone who won't come to the table. How can we make something work for you?

Will you be speaking at future events?

Errigo & McCarley: Nothing specifically planned right now.

How has the discussion impacted your work? As you talked about in the panel, people are scared of speaking up for fear of losing work.

McCarley: For me, I was risking nothing. I was already not working for them; I was already saying I was not going to do non-union work years before this season came up. I was already planning on saying, “Put it on a union contract or no.” Castmates convinced me to try and meet them in the middle. That's where the idea of #JustAMeeting came from. It was easy for me; I was risking nothing. It's a bigger ask for the actors based in Dallas, as Crunchyroll is 90% of their work. When we started our organizing effort, it was a much softer thing. It wasn't going into production and saying, “Go union or I'm walking away.” It was more of, “Is there any way for you to do this union? It's ok if not, but if you could, I'd appreciate it.” That's how Aniplex started doing so much on a union contract.

Update (11/17): Following the publication of this feature, Kyle McCarley offered the following clarifications:

Regarding the Nier anime: "If Aniplex keeps it for the dub, I see no problem, because all their dubs are union these days. But if they turn it over to Crunchyroll, that could be a problem, because they haven't even been willing to negotiate."

Regarding the Fena: Pirate Princess anime, McCarley clarified that he heard that information 'anecdotally' and "I've heard of joint ventures between Crunchyroll and other companies where, even though the partner company was the one footing the bill and they were on board with producing the project on a union contract, Crunchyroll stepped in and said no."


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