Sticking It to Nickelodeon
Production workers at Nickelodeon’s Animation Studio are fighting for their first contract alongside already-organized artists (writers, designers, colorists, storyboarders and background painters) who have been working under an expired contract for two and a half years.
The workers collectively produce animated shows: The Loud House, Rugrats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Spongebob SquarePants. The artists have been members of IATSE Local 839, The Animation Guild (TAG) since 2002, and 3D computer graphics staff joined in 2013.
After a vigorous campaign, the production workers joined in January 2023. These workers keep things coordinated, flowing and on schedule. Production workers have lost their apartments and can't afford groceries while working on Spongebob and PAW Patrol—arguably billion-dollar properties.
The new organizing has given renewed energy to the contract campaign, and now union members, old and new, permanent and freelance, have come up with creative disruptive tactics to get a fair contract for everyone.
WAKING UP FROM THE “DREAM JOB”
Conditions at Nickelodeon have been deteriorating. After the merger of CBS and Viacom in 2019, the new company, Paramount Global, started vying harder for a piece of the streaming market with Paramount+.
Nickelodeon has been finding ways around paying full-price for any of the already-discounted work they got from artists, from misclassifying storyboard artists in order to pay less on their health and pension benefits to outsourcing new shows to non-union studios.
Production workers, who were not protected by a union, have always taken the brunt of cuts, with employers leveraging young workers’ desires to work a “dream job” in cartoons and pit them against each other for low wages.
“In college I was told that the major studios were the place to be if you want to be in animation,” said Abigail Bokun, who has worked on Baby Shark’s Big Show as a production coordinator since 2021. “Getting in and realizing it paid the same as or less than most retail jobs was horrifying.”
Janae Hall has worked as a writer in multiple capacities. Most recently she’s freelanced in show development. Freelance writers make less and often wait longer to get paid—it can take four months, said Hall. “We’re seeing members who have been writers for years … now having to re-think everything because suddenly they’re working full-time but it’s freelance, and they’re now unable to afford the house payments they used to be able to afford a year ago.”
The freelance work is union, but writers can fall off of the union healthcare plan, which requires a certain threshold of union hours to maintain benefits.
As conditions worsened, “Our members have not really been sure what to do,” said Hall.
NEW UNIT REVS THINGS UP
Hall said seeing the production workers unionize was invigorating. “In the production workers there is a fire to make things better, and make things better now. Not to wait 3, 4, 5 years. It’s huge for people to see that hope and that drive.”
The Nickelodeon production staff unit is 180 people. They submitted cards for union recognition in November of 2022, and struggled with voluntary recognition from Nickelodeon for a few months. But in January of 2023, Nickelodeon was pressured into recognition and the production workers’ power was plugged into the artists’ bargaining efforts.
Claire Norris works on Big Nate as a production coordinator. She first got involved by joining union-centric Discord server that Bokun was running. She said the organizers reached a point in their card-signing where “we stopped giving a shit about being scared to talk to people we didn’t know. I was messaging people on Instagram and LinkedIn saying, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, do you want to talk about union stuff?’”
As the production workers joined in negotiate their first contract in combination with the artists contract, they brought confidence and organizing chops. Bokun said she learned during the organizing effort that “without structure, there is no way to track anything. If you’re not writing things down in a spreadsheet, keeping a list, designating roles to people other than yourself,” then you don’t have a strong foundation for getting things done.
WILLING TO STRIKE
How to activate the membership around the contract? “We recruited a group of people we call ‘show captains,’” said Norris. “They’re not on the committee, but they can help us communicate what’s going on to the bargaining unit as well as access different social circles than we can in the workplace.”
The captains spearheaded making signs during lunch breaks and bringing them to the Writers Guild (WGA) and Actors (SAG-AFTRA) picket lines. The effects of the lunchtime walk-off were felt immediately. “We really freaked out the company,” said Norris.
Then the union did a “Strike Willingness Petition,” the first in decades for TAG—400 signed. One stumbling block was outdated lists for artists currently working at the studio. The production workers came through, and they taught each other how to text bank. Bokun said, “If we hadn’t been trained so well on how to connect with people to get their information for the organizing campaign, we would not have had the success we did with these other campaigns during negotiations.” Members were being drawn into the plan.
When things began stalling out, Norris said, they huddled with the captains and asked them what collective action looked like to them. Together they brainstormed #StickItToNick, a coordinated campaign to put hundreds of sticky notes with our demands in conspicuous places around the studio, on the day of the big holiday party where the executives would be.
“We got everybody engaged in the week leading up to that by doing a table at lunch,” said Norris. “We got to talk to a lot of people while they were doing an activity and we got to do a temperature check on people who hadn’t been involved before because they were just walking around in the courtyard.”
It’s now been over 900 days on an expired contract, and the union is doing coordinated walkouts on the job. First, they lasted 15 minutes, as members walked around the block of the studio and ended with a few bargaining updates for those assembled. Then they escalated to 30 minute walkouts every Wednesday.
Recently, over 150 people came out, including virtually. The “virtual walkout” is a Zoom space for bargaining updates and where members can ask questions, at the same time the in-person walkout is happening.
The virtual walkouts loop in freelance writers, who are all working from home, and often don’t know anyone at the studio who could tell them what’s going on. People have stopped mid-meeting to go to the calls or to the in-person gathering.
Community members have helped by signing a public action petition to push Nickelodeon to give workers the fair deal they’ve been asking for.
Norris, Bokun, and Hall all said they learned a lot about the power that comes from getting a team into motion where there was none before. Norris saw the value in “breaking [our ideas] down into manageable steps and making sure we know who is responsible for what parts and when those things are due.” Bokun added: “Don’t do it all by yourself. You can’t have an organizing committee of only 3 people.”
Hall said, “When you have people who are dedicated and willing, then people want to join. When they’re given an avenue through other members, people join. This is a real testament to the power of union members speaking to other union members.”
Nora Meek is a storyboard artist at Nickelodeon Animation Studios. You can sign their community petition here.