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Artist RightsLawStudios

Exclusive: Artists At Stoopid Buddy, Studio Behind ‘Robot Chicken,’ Are Uniting To Unionize

An effort to organize the artists at Burbank, California-based Stoopid Buddy Stoodios with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union has gained momentum in recent weeks, according to a source inside the studio.

Stoopid Buddy, the largest stop motion studio in southern California with about 200 employees, is the creative force behind the Adult Swim smash hit Robot Chicken, as well as Sony/Crackle’s Supermansion, the upcoming Netflix kids’ series Buddy Thunderstruck, and Denny’s popular advertising web shorts Grand Slams. The studio is owned by actor Seth Green, and three other partners: Eric Towner, Matt Senreich, and John ‘Harv’ Harvatine IV.

Cartoon Brew is told by its source, a union organizer within the studio, that the low wages for lower-level staff causes significant turnover, with fed-up staffers often leaving the studio. The studio frequently replaces departing staff with younger, inexperienced artists fresh out of art school, who subsequently require hours of training to get up to speed. The inexperienced hires, who are often just happy to have a job at the studio, frequently have little idea of their true value to the studio and have little negotiating experience. As a result, wages are lowered, and the work schedule suffers, with many additional hours required by all of the staff to catch up.

One of the key goals of the current unionizing effort is for greater wage-scale transparency, so that staffers can have an idea of their colleagues’ pay rates — and know whether they are being treated fairly or not. Another goal is better health insurance. For years, the studio failed to provide health insurance at all for its employees, which was one of the leading causes for an attempt at unionization in the spring of 2015. The attempt failed, though the studio asked employees for a list of “demands” that might placate the staff and tamp down unionizing efforts for good.

Stoopid Buddy Stoodios co-owners, John Harvatine IV, left, Eric Towner, Seth Green and Matt Senreich. (Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)
Stoopid Buddy Stoodios co-owners, John Harvatine IV, left, Eric Towner, Seth Green and Matt Senreich. (Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

Among those demands was health insurance. The studio waffled, delayed, and postponed, until finally, on the final day before a state law requiring health insurance went into effect, the studio signed up with what has been described as a “bottom-barrel” health plan for its employees.

To choose union representation, eligible artists must complete a union card anonymously on the IATSE website. Sixty-five per cent of those artists must sign a card for the union to become involved, and according to Cartoon Brew’s source, union organizers at Stoopid Buddy feel confident that they can reach this minimum threshold.

Momentum for the unionizing effort has been spurred by the studio’s starting wages for artists, including assistant animators, compositors, and other visual effects staff that hover just above California’s $10 minimum wage.

Animators’ starting wages begin at about $20 per hour, and, after a year of satisfactory work, they can expect a raise of $1 or $2 per hour. Wages in the stop motion animation industry have shrunk in recent years, with rates lower than what they were ten years ago, without even taking inflation into account. This has happened despite a relative boom in the industry, with L.A.-based productions such as Amazon’s Tumbleleaf and the Oscar-nominated feature Anomalisa, as well as high-profile features incorporating stop motion such as Kubo and the Two Strings and The Little Prince, as well as prominent utilization of the technique in the advertising sphere.

Cartoon Brew’s source emphasized that union organizers enjoy Stoopid Buddy Stoodio; they are inspired by their work creatively, and want the studio to succeed. The unionizing effort is not meant to hurt or punish the studio, but instead aims to improve the work environment by boosting employee morale, health, and happiness. They are sensitive to the studio’s own financial pressures, and expressed a willingness to accept a collective bargaining effort that recognizes those realities.

Studio management, however, has not taken kindly to organizing efforts. They recently circulated to staff an eight-page letter purporting to answer union arguments about the benefits of unionizing. The letter, which begins by referring to “our Stoopid Family” and proceeds to present arguments against unionization, may have done more to harm to the studio’s position than to help, and many employees saw it as a clumsy effort by studio management to forestall the unionizing effort.

"Buddy Thunderstruck" is an upcoming series that Stoopid Buddy is producing for Netflix.
“Buddy Thunderstruck” is an upcoming series that Stoopid Buddy is producing for Netflix.

The letter seemed “written by a lawyer,” according to our source, and only served to highlight how ultimately the studio was a business rather than a family, with references to a “reasonable return on investment to [the studio’s] owners” and risks of a production shutdown.

The letter makes the point that were the studio to be unionized, Stoopid Buddy would be the only stop motion studio to be a union shop. As a result, due to potentially increased wages that their competitors would not need to meet, the studio may not be able to compete effectively for commercial jobs.

But the letter also argues that wages may increase, decrease, or stay the same, and warns that lower-performing employees may benefit while high performers may suffer, because the studio’s ability to reward performance could be handcuffed by higher minimum wages.

"Supermansion," a series created for Sony's online entertainment network Crackle, was recently renewed for a second season.
“Supermansion,” a series created for Sony’s online entertainment network Crackle, was recently renewed for a second season.

Stoopid Buddy also attempted to discourage would-be union artists by warning that there was no guarantee a union negotiation would result in a pension plan or improved health insurance. The union organizer at the studio acknowledged that, while those points may be true, a unionized staff could band together to collectively bargain, which is more advantageous than negotiating with the studio one by one.

For now, the unionizing efforts continue to take place at the studio. If the employees are able to reach the IATSE’s 65% threshold, the IATSE would then request that Stoopid Buddy voluntarily recognize IATSE as the workers’ representatives or compel the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a secret ballot election to determine whether a majority of workers want union representatives to negotiate an employment agreement with the studio. In the case of such an election, only a 50%+1 majority is needed to gain union representation. Should the union effort prevail, the employee union organizers would become the bargaining committee and work with IATSE representatives to formally begin negotiations with studio management.

Representatives for IATSE and the Animation Guild declined to comment due to the ongoing effort to unionize.

Stoopid Buddy Stoodios did not respond to to repeated requests for comment.

  • Karl Hungus

    Shadowmachine is next!

  • Shame Shame Know Your Name

    I love hearing stories about artists standing up for themselves…seems to be so rare these days.

  • Elsi Pote

    Whenever they use the family angle at any given negotiation I reply, “family are those related to me by blood and they are the only ones I will do favors or lend money to, without expecting anything in return. The rest are just business relationships.”

    Good for you guys, keep fighting the good fight for what has to be an standard not an option.

    “The water you drink comes from the well your ancestors dug”

  • Jack Rabbit

    Union Organization is necessary. Not only for a minor film sector like animation, but also many industries where the top of the company cowers behind franchises and widespread locations.

  • secretgoldfish

    I would have thought that health Insurance (in a no socialist healthcare system like the US) would have been a pretty basic pre-requisite/requirement to many employees. Employer greed and lack of empathy never seems to surprise me.

    There also seems to be a huge focus from these studios to highlight the viability of business relating to low wages, though I’ve never heard the argument from the studios themselves regarding the simple fact that NONE of their work would even be possible without………the staff.

    If you cannot pay the basic amounts so that your staff can actually LIVE in this world then maybe your business plan is the problem that is not viable.

    Sadly we’re all in a race to the bottom, if these employees had’ve been treated properly to begin with, none of them would likely be talking about unionising right now.

  • PuppetMan

    A question from Europe here : are people over at Laika unionized ? It’s the biggest stop motion facility and i wonder how things are organised there.

    • MovingImage

      There are no union stop motion studios in the US. Laika has notoriously low wages, but does offer some benefits and the advantage of longer contracts

    • NoUnionNoWay

      Laika is not union – However feel free to read comments on Glassdoor to really get a sense of the management and treatment of the artists over there!

      https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Laika-Inc-Reviews-E221728.htm

  • StoopidEmployee

    I heard that if Seth quits SAG then we won’t join. I thought it was a strange deal, but a lot of the staff seems to be for it.

  • StoopidEmployee

    The fact that Seth gets Guild pay every time he does a voice at stoopid’s in house recording booth is ridiculous. so its only fair that if the studio can ask its employees to not join the union, why can’t we ask seth to quit his. I know my argument comes off as satirical and trollish, but if you agree, you would at least repost my deleted comments.

    • AmidAmidi

      Reposted the link to your change . org campaign. The difference between satirical trolling and actual trolling can be difficult to distinguish sometimes, but your point is quite valid.

  • Quiet Mango

    To my Buddies on the fence: Where do you see yourself in 20 years? Would you someday like to own a home, or raise a family? What about 40 years? Would you like to be able to comfortably retire, or afford any medical care you may need? What about now? Can you afford to take a vacation, or go the dentist, or fix your car? We are not asking for much. Why can’t those of us in stop-motion have same benefits and protections enjoyed by the rest of the animation industry?

  • Good Fight

    The article didn’t even mention the fact that Stoopid Buddy employees are required to work 2 hours OT making it a 50 hour work week. Not sure how that is even legal. Keep fighting!

  • SeeingThroughYou

    All these comments are giving props to the “young artists” for standing up for themselves, but this article clearly states that the employees behind this unionization effort are unhappy that the studio hires actual young artists out of college, giving many of them the opportunity to build on their dreams of being an artist.

    Clearly it’s not the “young artists” behind this, rather ill-informed veteran employees who don’t realize that by being the only unionized stop-motion studio in the world, they would be losing numerous jobs to studios who can give more competitive job bids. And because union artists can only work on union projects, it would leave all of those union artists out of a job.

    • Quiet Mango

      Many of us supporting the unionization effort are the “young artists” – we get paid the worst, and its plain to see that we’ll be replaced too in a few years.

      To address your last point: Animation guild members can work on non-union projects without issue.

    • Coolstopmotionguy

      Stoopid Buddy is actually known for underbidding on projects, taking work from other studios at a much lower price. They are essentially choking out the industry. Also believe me when I say stoopid won’t be the only unionized stop motion studio. This is just the first step.

    • Coolstopmotionguy

      It is also untrue that union artists can only work on union projects. The union is quite felxible, seeing as it is formed by the artists themselves.

      • Eddie

        [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “It is OK to post with a nickname or alias, but your email address (which we will NEVER share publicly), must be a real, peramanent email address. Comments with fake or non-permanent emails will be deleted.”]

  • The_Strawbear

    “As a result, due to potentially increased wages that their competitors would not need to meet, the studio may not be able to compete effectively for commercial jobs.”

    Or perhaps the other workforces would also unionise!

  • StoopidEverything

    LA Times article from last month:

    “Annual sales have more than doubled in the last year, executives said, although they would not reveal financial figures for the privately held firm.”

    hmmm….

  • CartoonCrazy

    I have been in stop-motion animation for over 20 years, mostly at Will Vinton Studios, which became Laika. The low pay in stop-motion has a really long history (much longer than my 20+ years).

    The animators for “The PJs” television series looked into unionizing. We ended up getting a pay increase and more equal pay simply by getting organized. I don’t think the studio, or the artists, made off with more than what was reasonable. (Neither did great.)

    I know of many stop-motion artists and very few job opportunities. I have heard repeatedly from the people working, that there are long lines of people wanting their positions. Lots of talented artists and very few jobs. New artists are entering the field all of the time. It puts artists in a horrible bargaining position. It becomes more about how little they will work for, and how fast they can go, more than how good and experienced they are. I am not usually a fan of unions, but in the case of stop-motion artists, I think this is one of the only ways to have any sort of negotiating power.