Rank and File: Expanding the reach of WGAE with Annie Z

What is your occupation? (You don’t need to specify the company if you prefer not to.)

I am an animator/designer at a large media company. I work in the digital video department, primarily creating graphics assets for videos as well as full-screen animated content.

What union are you a member of? 

I am technically not a member yet, but I helped organize my unit of animators/designers/illustrators at the company to join Writers Guild of America East. 

What was your organizing experience like?

I actually took my current position partly because I wanted to join a union; the manager who hired me had told me I would become part of the post-production unit, which had recently organized with MPEG (Motion Picture Editors Guild). However, the manager turned out to be wrong. My title was not included in the post-production union, and MPEG explicitly told me they do not accept animators and designers. I then spoke to representatives from both WGAE and USA (United Scenic Artists), then ultimately decided to go with WGAE because they were already representing editorial and video production workers at my company. 

From what I understand, animators/designers/illustrators were simply not included in the initial organizing push with WGAE. I don’t have hard answers as to why this was, but my best guess is because our positions are somewhat misunderstood and scattered in the company. A couple of illustrators/animators who had been there during the first WGAE push told me they spoke to a rep, but felt too separated from others in the unit to join in organizing. 

Indeed, it was a pretty confusing process -- I had joined the company very recently, and workers in the relevant titles were quite siloed. A lot of the organizing was just latching on to any lead I got about a person who might work in one of these positions, then bugging them again and again to speak to me for a few minutes in some hallway. Funnily, at the beginning of this process I actually managed to get a fellow DSA member hired at the company (through the Creative Comrades FB group!) and they helped me IMMENSELY with these efforts.

It has been a little over a year since I began this process, and I am pleased to say the company has recently agreed to a path to recognition for our unit.

What do you feel are the major issues your union is focused on right now?

Digital media workers have seen a lot of turmoil over the past few years. Our industry was built on job security and tethered to the whims of platforms. I think the union has been focused on building collective power and eventually translating that into greater leverage over how this industry is run.

I believe WGAE is also trying to build solidarity with freelancers and independent contractors (who are prohibited from joining unions under the National Labor Relations Act), as that is a huge group of workers with few protections, and often scarce opportunities to connect with one another.

What is/has been the attitude of your employer toward the union?

Although my employer is not necessarily embracing the union with open arms, from what I understand, its presence is pretty accepted. The union has pizza parties in our lobby, for example. But again, I haven’t yet been at the bargaining table so I haven’t experienced that part first-hand. 

Discuss the ways your union has advocated for the interests of its members. 

In an industry notorious for mass layoffs and underpaid workers, WGAE has been critical in building protections like severance pay and salary minimums. They have also been one of the biggest players in dealing with harassment claims and getting problematic managers out the door. I witnessed this personally when one of my coworkers was laid off under very sketchy circumstances. After I connected her to our union reps, they managed to get her a large severance payout and push our boss out the door.

Are there issues you feel your union should organize around that are not currently being addressed?

I can’t really think of any, but I say that with the BIG disclaimer that I am not actually a member of the union yet. I mostly worked only with my direct union organizer (who is also a DSA member), and more recently our contract enforcer. 

Please elaborate on any points not covered by this questionnaire that you would like to address:

Like I mentioned, I accepted my current job partly because I wanted to be in a union, and it seemed like a rare opportunity in my field of work. Before joining my company, I had never worked a union job in the animation industry.

In a generally unorganized industry, labor abuses are par for the course. Most animation studios are quite small, without an HR department, and rely on seasonal contracted employees who have little time or opportunity to build trust among themselves. When I witnessed or personally faced harassment by managers, it felt like something I had to quietly brush off, especially when these managers were semi-famous in my field. This type of culture is also part of the history (and, I’m sure, present-day reality) of my current company, but I have now seen actual accountability and worker power in a unionized workforce.

Given all of this, I would love to see and help support any organizing efforts in the NYC animation field, and in visual arts generally. So please reach out if you have any questions!