Last weekend the Los Angeles animator’s union The Animation Guild announced that they had helped the overworked and underpaid artists on Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty ratify a new labor agreement. It’s a remarkable story—rarely does an entire TV series crew, like Rick & Morty’s, decide to pull together in mid-production to address poor labor conditions. By sticking together, they achieved their desired results.
One person who didn’t appreciate the unionization effort, however, was Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland. After our story was published on Saturday, Roiland went on the Rick & Morty subreddit and called the Animation Guild “unprofessional,” “not needed,” “desperate,” and “indecent.” Then to make clear how he really felt, he wrote, “FUCK THE UNION.” Roiland’s posts, along with the rest of the thread, were deleted earlier today.
In Roiland’s Reddit rant, he claimed that as a showrunner, he was blindsided by the Animation Guild, which was representing the artists on his show:
The problem here is that the union went after the OLD studio (Starburns) and the new studio (Rick and Morty LLC) had no idea. By the time we found out about this the union was strong arming the crew to walk out. We had almost no time to put together a deal with the union. It was incredibly stressful and absolutely unnecessary. To put a deal together over a weekend is just nuts. We would have landed on just as good a deal regardless of this gross time limit put upon us by the union. It left a really bad taste in my mouth.
The Animation Guild countered today with a lengthy post on its blog, explaining that the reason the deal had to be put together hastily was because Starburns had been uncooperative and not told them that a shell company had been formed to produce the show’s second season. Guild business rep Steve Hulett wrote that Starburns wouldn’t return his phone calls, and that it was only after the Guild filed the artists’ petitions with the National Labor Relations Board that Starburns informed them they were no longer producing the show. A second company called Rick and Morty LLC had been created for the express purpose of making the currently-in-production second season.
Research reveals that Rick and Morty LLC, which was formed in April of this year, was launched by Rick and Morty’s co-creator Dan Harmon, who also happens to be a partner in Starburns Industries. So yes, while Roiland’s claim that the Guild listed the wrong studio on the petition to unionize is correct, it’s disingenuous to assert that “by the time we found out about this…we had almost no time to put together a deal with the union.” The old studio and new studio have one of the same principals, not to mention that they operate out of the same building. Is Roiland claiming that Dan Harmon withheld information from himself?
Roiland’s claim that they didn’t have time to negotiate doesn’t hold up for other reasons, too. For example, the studio called a meeting with artists to give them the classic “unions are scary” talk. They told artists, among other things, that the Animation Guild offered a poor health plan. Of course, their own company offered no health plan, which was one of the reasons that artists wanted to organize. Regardless of what they told the artists, the anti-union meeting hosted by Rick and Morty LLC’s bosses suggests that they were well aware of the artists’ organizing efforts and didn’t have to wait until the last moment to strike a deal.
In another now-deleted comment, Roiland continued to point a finger at the Animation Guild, claiming that they made his artists want to strike against him:
I also had no idea anyone was unhappy. No one told me anything. One minute it’s just work as usual, the next minute there’s a walk out. Okay. Cool. Those union reps really know how to get people worked up and pissed off. Again, totally unnecessary on a show like ours. I LOVE AND CARE ABOUT MY CREW. If I knew they were unhappy we would have done something about it.
But the artists working on the show were the ones who approached the union for help. Guild rep Hulett writes, “The crew, unhappy about their treatment (they were on 60-hour weeks which made their 40-hour weekly wages still well below TAG minimums) approached us early in the summer and we held multiple meetings prior to a vote for any job action.”
The Animation Guild forced its hand only after Starburns/Rick and Morty LLC revealed to the National Labor Relations Board that they couldn’t proceed with the unionization effort because they’d targeted the wrong studio. Continues Hulett:
[W]e were faced with going back to square one with rep cards and filing a new petition, and knowing we didn’t have a lot of time to do this, or going to the crew and explaining the situation and seeing what they wanted to do.
We held a lengthy meeting with most of the “Rick and Morty” artistic staff on the evening of Thursday, September 4th detailing the above and asking them what they wanted to do. Doing a strike to leverage the company to a contract was one of the discussion topics. After much back and forth, almost everyone in the meeting voted to walk off the job the following Monday (September 8th). No arm twisting by the Animation Guild was involved.
We were told that word of the vote reached Rick and Morty LLC soon after, which is likely true because the company then moved with alacrity to sit down and negotiate with the Guild. Their lawyer called on Friday afternoon and agreed to begin negotiating toward a deal “in good faith”. She also asked that we agree to NOT pull the crew on Monday.
To which we said no. (We never set any deadline to reach a deal, but we never agreed to call off any alleged strike.)
We then negotiated with the company through the weekend. Bright and early Monday morning, the company’s representative again asked us to not pull the crew. Again we said no, saying if we had reached a proposal by noon-time we would take it to the staff and see if they wanted to hit the bricks or not. Happily, the company and guild reached a tentative agreement at 11:00, and [organizer] Steve Kaplan and I drove it to the “Rick and Morty” crew around 11:20. They were out on the sidewalk waiting for us, and we went through the deal points. When we finished, the staff voted to ratify the deal. There was no strike.
In the end, this is a victory for animation artists who work in the trenches. The couple of dozen artists who work on Rick and Morty aren’t getting special treatment; they’re simply receiving the same wages and benefits enjoyed by thousands of other artists who work in the Los Angeles animation industry. Even Roiland concedes that he’s ok with his crew being compensated fairly: “I am happy the crew has benefits and all the other perks that come with unionization, I just don’t like how the whole thing went down.”
The Animation Guild performed exactly as it was intended, which is to achieve better working conditions for artists using whatever leverage they have in a situation. In this case, the leverage they had was a group of artists who revolted due to inferior labor conditions. Roiland’s anger at the union is misplaced. Instead of blaming the Animation Guild for improving the lot of his artists, Roiland should be thanking the Guild for making him do what any responsible employer would have done in the first place.
(Photo via Shutterstock)