Basics of Unionization

In BC, generally speaking, the road to unionization involves a 4-step process:

  1. Educate workers, map, and gather more support. 
  2. Sign union membership application cards.
  3. Once 55% or more of the eligible workers sign a membership application card, the union files an application for certification with the BC Labour Relations Board and becomes automatically certified as the union entitled to represent the workers.
  4. The workers and the union negotiate the terms of the contract with the employer.

In some jurisdictions there is an additional step: a vote after cards have been signed. This is not the case in British Columbia. In BC, we have what is called “card-check automatic certification”. That means that if 55% or more of the eligible workers sign union cards, the union is automatically certified without any vote being necessary. 

The union contract that is signed is called a “Collective Agreement”. It is negotiated and agreed to by both the workers forming the union and the employers, so that it is fair to both parties.

A union contract, referred to as a “Collective Agreement” will set out the terms and conditions governing a worker’s employment and will often include many benefits to workers which can and will be legally enforced by the Union. A Collective Agreement will generally have a three-year term and be subject to renegotiation and/or renewal every 3 years. This allows for benefits to change, adapt, and improve as the workers’ union grows and they gain better leverage.

The right to be free from discipline or termination except for “just cause”, an overtime structure, wage minimums, COLA, and a grievance procedure are some examples of things that could be implemented in a first union contract. It’s important to note that although a union will try to maximize wage increases for workers, a first contract may not always lead to significant wage increases immediately. However, it is important to think of the long term, especially as this is a lifelong career for many artists. Gains in wages and other benefits are often achieved in each year of a union contract and again when that contract comes up for renewal. 

Over the past decade, wages across non-union industries have stagnated, or even dropped, and working hours have increased with no equivalent overtime pay. It’s important to reset the stage!

A union card, or “Authorization Card”, is the worker’s way of indicating that they would like to be represented by a union. In BC, these union cards expire after 6 months, so it’s best to wait to sign these cards until we are confident that the union has strong support among the workers.

Recently, IATSE has been making more and more use of digital union cards, which can be sent by email and signed using a computer.

Whether or not a worker has signed a card is kept completely confidential between the worker, the union, and the Labour Board. It is illegal for union cards to be disclosed to an employer at any point in the unionization process. Employers are also not allowed to ask workers whether or not they’ve signed a card.

No, not all unions have seniority. A union contract is written, negotiated and voted on by the workers. The workers decide what the content of any contract will be. If workplace seniority is not a priority or not relevant for workers in a particular workplace, then seniority provisions do not need to be included in a union contract. For example, the Canadian Animation Guild’s contract does not have any seniority provisions.

COLA stands for Cost Of Living Adjustment or Allowance. COLA adjusts salaries based on changes in a cost-of-living index, usually the Consumer Price Index. Essentially, as inflation and cost of living goes up, wages subject to a COLA will increase as well. This incremental wage increase can be negotiated into a union contract to ensure wages do not stagnate as other costs rise.

A health plan made available through IATSE combines the “purchasing power” of thousands of workers in order to secure health benefits that would be out of reach for a worker on their own. For example, a workplace with 500 workers is likely to have a more comprehensive health plan than a workplace with 50 workers. 

For this reason, unions, like IATSE, will take steps to combine the “purchasing power” of workers from multiple workplaces to secure the best possible health plan for workers in all those multiple workplaces. Health plans secured by IATSE often provide workers with the option to self-pay into the plan at a reduced rate to maintain a certain base level of benefits while unemployed. If a worker goes from one IATSE workplace to another IATSE workplace that offers the same health plan, there will likely be no waiting period for health benefits to kick in.

Union dues are the regular payments made by members to maintain their union membership. By paying union dues, workers are pooling their resources and investing them to ensure that members are protected and are getting all of the benefits of their collective agreements. The members of each local union have determined how much their dues are, which are necessary to cover all the costs of running that local (this could include any officer/staff salaries, rent, legal counsel fees, costs for member education/training, etc.).

Although each local is free to decide dues structure, CAG members pay two kinds of dues: regular dues and working dues.

Regular Dues are a flat fee payment, payable to the Union by all members. The regular dues for CAG Local 938 are $80 per quarter, however, members who choose to pay the entirety of their regular dues at the beginning of the year will save 10%. 

Working Dues are a percentage that is deducted directly from the gross wages of members who are working under a union contract. For Local 938, working dues are 2% of gross wages. 

Funds collected via dues payments contribute to all aspects of running the Union. Dues fund the union’s ability to support organizing campaigns, bringing the benefits of union membership to more and more workers across the industry (which is important, because as the unionized share of the labour market increases, so does the ability to influence wages and conditions). Dues fund the staff and resources provided by the Union to help workers negotiate and enforce their contracts. They also fund all kinds of other items like training and legal support for members, and through economies of scale allow the Union to provide a host of other benefits not normally available to non-union workers. Ultimately, the democratically elected board of the local Union makes the decisions about how its funds are spent, as directed by the members. 

While some people may not like the idea of paying for membership, it is important to understand that the benefits of union membership more than offset the cost of union dues. Unionized workers enjoy higher wages and better benefits than non-union ones, and are well protected by the union in case anything goes wrong. Union dues are also tax deductible, meaning that you get a sizable portion of your dues payments back during tax season.

What constitutes an HTP is set out in the BC Employment Standards Act. HTPs are workers who perform specific types of work that make them exempt from some of the minimum employment standards set out by the Act. In most cases, animation workers should not be considered HTPs. 

You should contact an IATSE representative if you think you are being treated as an HTP. They can guide you through whether you have been properly classified and what effect, if any, this has on your workplace rights and your ability to form a union. If you have been wrongly classified as an HTP, the Union may be able to help you to recover any losses you might have incurred.

Yes! For example, in October 2022, the IATSE Canadian Animation Guild became the union entitled to represent Titmouse production staff.

Figuring out who is management in a particular workplace – and therefore not legally entitled to be part of the union – requires consideration of a variety of different factors. For this reason, figuring out who is actually in management (and who isn’t) has to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Generally speaking, a worker who has the ability to make independent decisions to hire and/or fire a worker and actually exercises that ability will be considered management.

Common Concerns & Fears

Due to globalization, many industries have moved jobs overseas and animation is no exception. Animators in Korea, the Philippines, and India already work for much lower rates than animators in Canada or the USA with or without a union, and yet, animation is still being done in North America. Hollywood animators have enjoyed the benefits of unionization since 1941. Live action film in BC has been unionized since the 1990s. The actors who record voices for the cartoons we make are also in a union. Animation work is likely to stay here for a number of reasons:

  • BC’s Tax Credit program
  • Same language and time zone as LA
  • Close proximity and similar culture to the LA industry 
  • Infrastructure setup and a large pool of talented artists
  • A well-established Canadian entertainment industry that needs Canadian talent for CanCon (Canadian Content) requirements.

Since Titmouse workers organized to form CAG in 2020, Titmouse Vancouver has still been getting work, just as it did before. Animation in Vancouver did not flinch or slump at news of unionization; in fact, new studios continue to open here, because of the reasons listed above.

It is very likely that there will be another recession at some point in the future, as the industry has ties to other countries and economies, and there is no way to ensure market stability forever. However, if unionization leads to paid overtime work, COLA, higher wages, and a better mobile health and retirement plan with continuous coverage, we can be better protected when the next recession comes. If we are paid overtime and higher wages while there is plenty of available work, we can have more savings for when we may be out of work, and can continue to have a health plan through the Union even if we are not working.

No, it isn’t – an employer that fails or refuses to pay overtime is breaking the law. 

In BC, Employment Standards laws require employees who work more than 8 hours in a work day or more than 40 hours in a work week to be paid time-and-a-half or double-time, depending on when and how many overtime hours are worked.

Yes. Many IATSE collective agreements set wage minimums to ensure that no one is being underpaid, while also giving employees the ability to negotiate wage rates above those minimums depending on their skills, level of experience, etc.

Workers are permitted to talk about unionization in the workplace during their breaks free from paid work. This said, a worker should always seek guidance from an official representative of the Union who has experience in workplace organizing before engaging in any discussions about unionization in the workplace. Workers should always cautiously gauge the willingness of a co-worker’s interest in engaging in discussions about unionization before disclosing their interest in unionization and never engage in discussions about unionization with anyone working in management or through official company channels like a workplace Google Chat.

Employers can lawfully instruct workers not to engage in discussions about unionization during paid work hours or with employer-issued computers and/or employer-provided internet access, and they can legally issue discipline to employees who fail to comply with this instruction. Employers can also lawfully communicate their views on how and why the workplace ought to remain union-free. (And they almost always do!)

However, employers CANNOT ask or compel a worker to disclose if they have signed a union card. Employers CANNOT discriminate against a worker in any way, simply because that worker may support a union or express an interest in unionizing their workplace. Employers CANNOT lay off or fire – or threaten to lay off or fire – a worker, or harass a worker in any other way, simply because that worker may support a union or express an interest in unionizing their workplace. That sort of conduct is unlawful. 

If a worker believes they have been the subject of unlawful treatment by their employer because they support a union or have expressed an interest in unionizing their workplace, that worker should contact an official representative of the Union immediately for assistance.

Actually, unionization can be very beneficial for the studios. It can guarantee labour stability, which can ensure that the studio can meet their deadlines. It can draw talent to the studio, as workers will often want to be at a studio where their needs are met and their interests are represented. It can help employers to introduce benefit plans and retirement plans to their employees. In short, unionization can, and does, benefit employers just as much as it will  benefit employees!

Studios may say that their biggest challenge with a unionized workforce is a lack of complete flexibility. However, unregulated flexibility is often a detriment to employees, and needs to be weighed appropriately in a workplace. With a union, animation workers would be an integral part of that conversation.

It’s best to keep a record of the hours you have actually worked each day, in writing, by recording the time you get to work, the time you start and finish any breaks, and the time you leave work. Remember, if you are working 9 to 6 and work through lunch, you have already worked one hour of overtime. There are many timesheet apps you can download to help you count your hours, such as Work Log.

Mechanics of Organization

By law, all union contracts contain a mechanism to resolve concerns relating to the interpretation, application, or violation of the contract. That mechanism is referred to as the grievance procedure. 

The steps of a grievance procedure in any union contract will vary from contract to contract. Generally speaking, a grievance procedure starts with a workplace concern, referred to as a grievance, being discussed by the worker, a union representative, and a representative of management. If the grievance is not resolved through those initial discussions, the grievance is often then committed to writing by the union and responded to in writing by management. If the grievance remains unresolved, it may then be referred to binding arbitration – where an arbitrator appointed by the parties or the Ministry of Labour will issue a decision that is binding on the parties. An arbitrator’s decision in a grievance can take many forms and could include monetary damages being awarded to the aggrieved party.

IATSE has been representing entertainment workers for over 125 years. It has extensive experience in organizing workplaces and in filing applications to unionize a workplace. It also has experienced labour lawyers at the ready who will assist in helping to determine who should participate in decision-making on whether a workplace becomes unionized. Those lawyers will also take the necessary steps on behalf of the IATSE to ensure all workers with a connection to a workplace get an opportunity to participate in any decision to unionize their workplace, whether it be by signing a union card or by participating in any labour board supervised vote that the board might order.

It is ideal to organize around the beginning of a production, however, it can be done at any time. Productions that have been picked up or renewed for multiple seasons have a unique advantage for strategic organizing. The first season can be spent organizing workers. At the start of the second season, the union campaign can hit the ground running by collecting signed cards with a view to then filing an application, which will either result in automatic unionization or a vote. Once the workplace is unionized, the workers can then start their negotiations for a first union contract.

Experienced IATSE representatives will assist workers in any newly organized workplace to negotiate a first union contract. That process will include a series of meetings with the workers to identify contract proposals based on wants, needs, and priorities communicated by the workers. Workers interested in participating in the contract negotiation process will also either be elected or otherwise chosen to sit on the union’s bargaining committee. That union bargaining committee, with the help of the IATSE representative, will then proceed to bargain directly with the employer with a view to settling a comprehensive first contract. Once the union bargaining committee and the employer reach a tentative agreement on the terms of the union contract, that tentative agreement will then be presented to all the workers in the workplace for consideration and a ratification vote. Once a tentative agreement is ratified by the workers, it becomes a legally binding and enforceable first contract.

Have a question not addressed here?

Please email us at: contact@cag938.ca