When the writers of children’s cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants and Hey Arnold! tried to unionize with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) twenty years ago, Nickelodeon was quick to retaliate.
The studio’s biggest hit programs were nonunion, so these writers signed union authorization cards. An unfair labor practice (ULP) filing with the National Labor Relations Board alleged that the studio then illegally reduced the compensation of pro-union writers on The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. In response, the writers picketed the studio’s Burbank, California, headquarters.
The union drive didn’t succeed. Eventually, the writers of Nickelodeon shows joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 839, The Animation Guild (TAG), which represents the majority of animation writers. As for the writers involved in the turn-of-the-century union drive at Nickelodeon, they were punished.
“Nickelodeon blacklisted every one of them,” says one animation writer with decades of experience in the industry who requested anonymity. More than a decade after the dispute, when one writer tried to hire one of the participants in the failed union drive for a show, he was told “that person won’t be working here.”
Such vehement anti-unionism has a long history in animation studios. Walt Disney viciously fought the Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG), Local 839’s predecessor, when his own cartoonists began organizing. When Art Babbitt, one of Disney’s star cartoonists — he was responsible for Goofy, the evil stepmother in Snow White, and Geppetto in Pinocchio — helped lead the union drive, Disney fired him and twenty-three other workers, provoking a strike. That was in 1941; in 1947, Disney told Congress that the SCG was “taking orders from Moscow.” (As a New York Daily News headline read at the time, “Communists Tried to Capture Mickey Mouse, says Disney.”)
In 1952, writers at Disney and Warner Brothers formed TAG, but the union busting never went away. Indeed, workers say that one animation studio still has a physical black book with the names and photos of blacklisted writers.
Animation writers’ roots in storyboard artistry walled them off from live-action writers, who are represented by the WGA, and the result is a staggering disparity in pay and benefits. (WGA does represent Fox’s prime-time animation writers, including those on The Simpsons and Family Guy, an arrangement that followed from those writers — whose prime-time, live-action experience increased their leverage — having organized what were previously nonunion shows into a union shop in the late 1990s.) These animation writers, who constitute around 10 percent of TAG’s roughly 3,000 members, are currently in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over a new three-year contract. While these talks have received less attention than the IATSE contracts that were just (barely) ratified by 60,000 members of the film and television industry, they concern a workforce that is relegated to far worse standards than its live-action counterparts.
In the negotiations, TAG writers are pushing for pay parity with WGA members. Animation writers make a minimum of $2,064 per week, while WGA weekly minimums range from $4,063 to $5,185 — that comes out to TAG writers making 41 to 52 cents on the dollar per week compared to live-action writers. Whereas experienced WGA writers can negotiate wages well above the minimums, animators have a harder time doing so, with studios refusing to pay above that minimum. Indeed, one former Nickelodeon writer says he made more money working for nonunion reality shows than he did as an animation writer.
“I worked on the biggest trashy reality shows that you can think of, and I made more money on those than at Nickelodeon, where I was writing for one of the most recognizable characters in the world,” he explains. While he made more per hour working at Nickelodeon, the network would only hire writers for one day a week and not tell them whether they’d be brought back on for the following week until Friday, an unpredictable schedule that made it difficult to find a second job.
Animators, both in television and film, do not receive the same residuals as WGA productions either, no matter how big a hit they create. Their residuals go toward funding the union’s health plan, rather than arriving in their mailbox as a check — on a hit feature film, this can mean a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars — an arrangement that has long been a point of contention for some animators.
As Mairghread Scott, the chair of the union’s writers’ committee, who has written on the Guardians of the Galaxy and Transformers animated series, told Variety, “There’s no difference in quality and no difference in difficulty. We deserve to be paid commensurately with writers who do the same job.”
“Say you’re writing for CSI: Miami, and you create a new coroner character, and that character becomes a fan favorite, so they decide that they’re going to spin off that character,” explains the longtime animation writer:
You get credit for creating that character, and you will be paid as such. In animation, where we create characters for these shows all the time, we don’t get anything. The studio owns it, because all of our contracts are effectively work for hire.
In addition to the disparity in compensation, there is the issue of credits. Animation writers get staff writer or story editor credit, but nothing higher, such as a producer credit, until they are running a show. WGA shows, in contrast, treat staff writing and story editing as bottom-rung positions, with more experienced writers gaining additional credits. That makes it harder for animation writers to work in live action without starting over from the bottom, no matter how many decades of experience they may have. Animation writers have long pushed for a change to crediting but say it has been a nonstarter in negotiations, as a change in credits would need to be reflected in writer pay as well.
“A lot of people don’t know about the disparity in pay and treatment, and that’s largely due to the fact that the animation writers don’t like to talk about it, because there’s a stigma,” says the animation writer. “In this industry, your worth is tied to how much you make and because animation writers make less, we are viewed as less, and we view ourselves as less.”
It’s a strange incongruity given the popularity and longevity of animated shows. Paramount+, ViacomCBS’s 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, making them a reliable profit generator — a SpongeBob episode works about as well today as it did twenty years ago, and audiences reliably buy cartoons’ merchandise. Plus, cartoons’ visual humor allows for easy translation across borders.
Yet the disparity remains. Given the continued proliferation of animated television and films, if the disparity isn’t resolved in this round of contract negotiations, which are set to resume in early 2022, the calls to rectify the problem will only get louder.
“Animated writers do the same work, with the same process, as live-action writers, and as the pandemic proved, it’s easier for the bosses to make money off of the labor of animators,” says the former Nickelodeon writer. “If what Americans do is produce content, if that’s much of the manufacturing this country now does, then at the very least, we should be paid fairly for it.”