The effort to unionize Canada’s animation industry has received a boost, through a new strategic alliance between two groups central to the movement: the Art Babbitt Appreciation Society (ABAS) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). ABAS is a nationwide collective of hundreds of animation workers agitating for better rights, while IATSE is the largest union representing the industry on the continent.

The two organizations will work jointly to develop collaborative strategies as they seek to create a union to represent Canada’s animation and vfx workers, starting with Vancouver. In a statement, they listed their priorities:

  • Maintaining active and ongoing communication within the animation community.
  • Ensuring workers are paid fairly for the work they do, including overtime.
  • Lobbying to end the application in the animation sector of the BC High Technology Professional (HTP) Employment Standards Act exemption from overtime provisions.
  • Providing portable benefits, as animation workers often have multiple employers and work in multiple jurisdictions.
  • Addressing work-related health problems and advocating for safe and healthy workplaces.
  • Establishing strong union representation for animation workers through a recognized international union.

“Animation workers in Canada have been exploited and treated unfairly for years,” said Vanessa Kelly, ABAS founder and board member. “Our alliance with the IATSE moves us toward securing strong union representation to address the systemic problems that leave animation workers vulnerable to the whims of our multibillion-dollar clients and the corporate priorities of our employers.”

ABAS is named after Art Babbitt, one of Walt Disney’s best (and highest-paid) animators in the studio’s early days, who was one of the key leaders of the game-changing Disney strike of 1941. Since then, unions have retained a consistent presence in the U.S. animation industry. Founded in 1952, the Animation Guild now operates as Local 839 of IATSE (which covers the entertainment sector more broadly). Yet many workers in the U.S. are still unrepresented and labor disputes remain common.

In Canada, not a single animation, vfx, or gaming studio is unionized; ABAS’s members are not union reps but workers campaigning for change. The non-unionized workforce remains vulnerable to employer abuses — particularly, in British Columbia, the misuse of the abovementioned HTP exemption, a loophole studios often invoke to deny their employees certain rights (ABAS’s website has an explainer).

This problem reached a head during the production of Sausage Party at Nitrogen Studios. Animation artists filed a legal complaint (via Unifor, a local media union), claiming that they were due overtime payments for their work on the film. They won, and ABAS was formed in 2016 as a result of the dispute. On its website, the society states:

We are a community group. We invite conversation, discourse and participation from artists of all opinions. The issues we face are multiple and complex, and as such will require complex solutions. We are the animation artists that make up this industry, we pour our souls into the craft and we have worked too long for too little. We are skilled, we are essential, we are animation.

(Image at top: “Sausage Party.”)

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