Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sony ImageWorks -- A Dialogue

A constant reader (I assume) writes below:

... I am at Sony Imageworks. I have been there for many years now. Recently there have been a lot of changes, old management teams being replaced by newer ones. This is the norm right? Every few years new blood, new brooms, new styles. The style of this group seems to be slash/burn. Seasoned vet's getting tossed on their @sses to be replaced by a younger (cheaper) crowd. Benefits are being cut to the bone. Severance pay - cut out completely and we are being asked to sign new contracts that strip away our current health coverage to a shadow of what it is now. A few years back the union tried to come in, but back then Sony's benefits were better than what the union offered so many of us voted against it. WE WERE WRONG! ...

And Yours Truly responds:

Ah yes, I remember it as though it were yesterday. There we were, the IA reps and the Animation Guild officers (President Koch and I) in the Imageworks theater, rolling out the IATSE contract, Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan and TAG 401(k) Plan (without a match) that we hoped to sell to the Imageworkers.

The production hires were receptive, but the permanent employees weren't buying. In fact, many bristled with anger that their generous Sony benefits were being threatened by this new deal, and wanted no part of it. Campaigned against it.

And the day of the vote, the permanent employees ... with their production-hire allies ... handed the IA (and TAG) their heads. The vote was something like 289 NAYs, and 27 AYEs.


We (the unionists) skulked out of there with our tails between our legs. An IA rep asked me later: "So, what do you think we should have done?" I replied: "Cancel the vote before it was held."

Of course, the union side (my side) was not about to do that. Couldn't do that. They had to roll the dice. Even though I knew ... and several of them knew ... we were headed for the rocks. I had talked to enough employees and ex-employees to know that beyond much doubt, even as I told them:

"You think this sweet deal you've got with ImageWorks is going to go on and on. The benefits, the pay, it's all permanent. Except it's not. The company can revoke them whenever it wants."

Let me state right here that I don't begrudge anybody for buying the company line and voting to keep the IA out. It's always comfortable and easy to go with the status quo, particularly when you are in Fat City. Your head says, "Maybe this won't last..." but your heart yells:

"Heey now! This is the way it was meant to be! And this is the way it will be FOR-EVER!"

But it isn't, actually.  It never is.  Everything --the good, the bad, and the indifferent -- is temporary. We know this intellectually, but emotionally we resist the sad reality.   And I most likely would have done the same thing the ImageWorks folks did all those years ago, when Tim Sarnoff ladled out the b.s. and employees lapped it up. (Tim, like many of the employees, is gone now. He's off in France, building a new career and empire.)


Face it.  It's hard to resist the profit-sharing, rich 401(k) plan, and nice salary, and go into a voting booth and gamble on something else.

But here's the deal with Imageworks now. I would love to organize the place.   Problem is, I can get into the studio, but new management watches me like a bird of prey, so there is no way I'm going to chat up the non-union crew. What would be more useful is for ImageWorkers who want to change things to call me at 818-845-7500.  We can set up some meetings, do lunch, chat on the phone or whatever.  Work to get something happening down there in Culver City.

Because the past is dead and gone.  And an organizational drive begins with the first Representation Card.


Anonymous said...

I've always been confused TAG's relationship with Sony.

What parts are union, and which parts are not?

Steve Hulett said...

Sony Pictures Animation (SPA) is union. It's the pre-production unit.

Sony Pictures Imageworks (production unit) is non-union.

They are two different corporate divisions. We got a union vote for SPA, but not for SPI (as detailed above.)

Anonymous said...

Cool, thanks for clarifying.

Anonymous said...

How about Imagmovers Digital? I know they're Disney, but are they Union? I sure hope so, because I hear the folks there are run pretty ragged.

Steve Hulett said...

Imagemovers, up in Novato California, is under an IA contract. Overtime after eight, plugged into the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan, also the TAG 401(k) Plan.

I've been up there multiple times to talk to the crew about pension and health plans.

Anonymous said...

The sad thing about the original Sony Imageworks vote was that most of the people who voted against going union had no idea what they were voting against. At the time, emails and hallway conversations were used to spread complete misinformation. I think a lot of that misinformation was unintentional, but it was spread pretty vigorously, and anyone trying to clear things up (i.e., speak up for how the union benefits really did work) quickly got the stink eye.

Anonymous said...

"The sad thing about the original Sony Imageworks vote was that most of the people who voted against going union had no idea what they were voting against."

So basically no one at Imageworks back then had ever been an 839 member and had any clue what was good about the union benefits? Wow.

Anonymous said...

anon 12am,

I also worked at Imageworks for 3 years. All the workers were told that the union was offering to replace benefits with nothing. Supervisors put pressure of workers to vote no. Illegal? yes, but that's how it goes.

The first reaction from many workers joining the Union is: "What! No 401k match?!". The union needs to explain that there exists something better than a match: The Individual Account Plan, and the Pension plan, vested after 1 and 5 years respectively.

Steve, we need a simpler way to communicate this to every member when they first join.

Anonymous said...

Imageworks situation is very similar to many other visual effects companies: They aren't profitable.

So cuts are being made, benefits are being slashed, and jobs are being lost.

Wouldn't joining a union now make it even tougher to make a profit? Wouldn't it cost more than their current benefits?

Anonymous said...

How would it make it tougher?

If the workers had joined 839 back then, it wouldn't have made any significant difference in Sony's profits at all. None.
There's a reason Disney and Dreamworks and Sony Animation et cetera sit still for being union-it's because it's really no skin off their noses at all. If only the Imageworks people hadn't been lied to. That really stinks and I'm disgusted at Tim Sarnoff if he had anything at all to do with it. He got his animation start at an emphatically union house(WB) and he knew damn well it made zero difference to WB's bottom line.

Anonymous said...

So basically no one at Imageworks back then had ever been an 839 member and had any clue what was good about the union benefits? Wow.

No, we were there. And the supervisors who wanted to make sure they held on to their secret Sony bonus plan, and wanted to keep the union out, knew just who we were. It was a frankly scary situation. Speak up for the truth about union benefits, and have your supervisor hate you, or keep your f-ing mouth shut, and keep your job.

Steve Hulett said...

The first reaction from many workers joining the Union is: "What! No 401k match?!". The union needs to explain that there exists something better than a match: The Individual Account Plan, and the Pension plan, vested after 1 and 5 years respectively.

There were a variety of reactions. But the long and short was: the highly paid permanent employees and supervisors campaigned vigorously against it for reasons that didn't hold up over the long term, and a majority went along.

(Of course, they could have voted the other way in the secret ballot election and lied about their vote, but few did.)

Anonymous said...

It's an absurd argument to suggest that hiring a union crew doesn't make any difference to the bottom line. There's no question that it's more expensive. That doesn't mean that unions are inherently bad for business, but they certainly limit the employer's ability to screw with their employees and most employers prefer to hang onto that freedom.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog and comments, here's another inside view:

- At the time of Imageworks union vote, there was a concerted and collective effort on the part of many artists to analyze and compare the (then) Sony benefits vs. the (then) union benefits. I do remember people asking 839 (and other union local) members about what they liked/disliked about the unions. Most artists came to the conclusion that the Sony benefits were superior.

- Most Imageworks artists that I know were and are fully aware that the good benefits provided by Sony could also be unilaterally revised. It's cleary says so in the Employee Handbook - you are an "at-will" employee, i.e. if you are unhappy with your employement at Sony you have the right to leave at anytime.

- While there certainly were more than a few spirited discussions concerning yes/no - I personally did not see or hear about or experience any managerial pressure regarding the vote. Considering that the vote was a secret ballot with Union reps present, it would be silly to think that anyone was personally afraid to vote yes for the union. If anyone feels that they were pressured by management, they should seek union help to file a complaint with the NLRB.

- As mentioned in the body of the blog - "Everything --the good, the bad, and the indifferent-- is temporary." This applies equally to the fat (seriously, they were/are very very good) Sony benefits AS WELL AS those great union benefits. The union benefits must be negotiated every few years with the studios and producers. Nothing sacred about that either. Ask those old US Steel union workers how well their union benefits have held-up. I'll bet there are plenty of GM and Chrysler UAW folks who are a bit worried about their benefits too. In short the Union has no more ability to promise you lifelong security than a corporation does.

- Re: Tim Sarnoff b.s. - I don't personally know anyone who ever "lapped" up his b.s. Most artists that I know were and are too experienced/cynical to take at face value any statements by any company's management.

- Most artists that I know thought that the Union reps that came to speak at Imageworks were a collection of arrogant and condescending idiots. They had the attitude that they were here to rescue a bunch of poor exploited factory workers or something. Clearly THEY had not compared the then Sony benefits with the union offer. They just repeated the standard mantra that IA had the best benefits in the industry - maybe compared to other union benefits that was true, but not compared to the Sony benefits. They tried to peddle the standard union line about how the Sony benefits could go away - well, no duh Sherlock. They were not so happy to discuss how they had to negotiate the union deal every so often with the studios and producers. Hey, did Mr. Union Rep here tell you that our collective bargaining agreement would not have allowed us to strike. Boy, that's some strong union you got there. And YOU want to represent ME?

- As stated in the blog, the Union got absolutely pasted in the vote because their proposal and presentation sucked. Really, you can spin it all you want, but that is the bottom line.

- Ah, but that was then, this is now. As stated in the blog, now probably is a good time to try to get another union drive going again. The fat times are definitely going going gone. But the union has already missed the big boat. More and more digital work is going out of state and out of country (egs. Imageworks India and New Mexico). The union is just fighting for crumbs that remain. IA/TAG didn't do so well with keeping all those traditional cell animation jobs here in socal back in the 90's did they. And then they were slow to (try) to organize the digital workers and mostly failed. And now they will try to organize what's left when most of the good work will be long gone.

Site Meter