Unionizing Production Animation: Walt Disney Animation Studios

In March of 2022, a supermajority of Disney Feature production workers demanded voluntary recognition to be represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and The Animation Guild (TAG), signaling a significant development in the entertainment industry’s labor landscape.

“The compensation we currently receive doesn’t come close to matching the value of the work being performed, let alone allow most of us to be financially independent. Our salaries make it difficult for us to stay in these jobs we love as a lifelong career and live a moderately comfortable life without being financially dependent on a partner, parent, or second job,” says Production Coordinator Hannah Bialosky. “Meanwhile, the content we help create goes on to make billions of dollars for Disney through box office revenue, merchandise, gaming, publishing, streaming, parks attractions, and more. It is past time the studio recognizes our value and the critical role we play in their productions and compensate us fairly.”

However, what followed was a contentious battle as the studio chose not to voluntarily recognize the Union, opting to try to exclude a substantial portion of the bargaining unit based solely on job titles in an attempt to capitalize on common misconceptions of labor law and needlessly prolong the unionization process.

The catalyst for this dispute was Disney’s decision to claim that Production Supervisors and Production Managers should be excluded from having Union protections. The studio argued that these roles constituted supervisory or managerial positions and, therefore, were ineligible for unionization. While the Union asserted that Production Supervisors and Production Managers did not meet the criteria of supervisors or managerial employees under the National Labor Relations Act. 

This disagreement eventually led to a hearing by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and in September, 132 days after the hearing concluded, the NLRB refuted every point the studio made and found that these workers did not exercise the kind of authority and discretion necessary to be classified as supervisors. Instead, they were closely aligned with Production Coordinators and shared a clear community of interest, rendering them eligible for unionization and directing an election to take place. 

“This win exemplifies the core of why we’re unionizing. We knew throughout this process that everyone in our unit deserves to be eligible, but the company still decided to pursue this long and arduous process to divide us. We have stayed patient and adamant in our stance, so it feels extremely validating to win this colossal victory not only for ourselves but also for the animation industry as a whole,” adds Production Coordinator Maggie Hughes.

This landmark NLRB decision not only paved the way for Production Supervisors and Production Managers to be part of TAG but also set a significant precedent in the entertainment industry. It reaffirmed the rights of these workers to organize and collectively bargain for better working conditions, wages, and benefits. By overcoming obstacles and misconceptions about labor law, these workers have taken a significant step forward in their quest for a stronger voice and improved working conditions.

The ballot count for these workers took place on November 1, 2023. With 96% voter participation, the final tally was decisively in favor of unionizing with a vote of 5 no votes to 63 yes votes.

What’s Next: Like other groups that have organized, these workers have elected several of their colleagues to a Negotiation Committee to attend and participate in negotiations. Preparations are underway for negotiations, which includes tasks like unit-wide priority surveys, informational town halls, and regular meetings with TAG representatives and staff.