Titmouse Vancouver animators become first in Canada to unionize

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What happened: Vancouver workers become first in Canada to unionize at an animation studio

Why it matters: The animation sector has been criticized for working conditions on previous projects, notably Seth Rogen’s Sausage Party

Animators at Titmouse Inc.’s Vancouver studio are illustrating to other Canadian workers an historic effort to unionize.

Workers voted 98% in favour of joining the Animation Guild, IATSE Local 938, earlier this month, the union revealed on Tuesday (October 20).

Titmouse Vancouver becomes the first animation studio in Canada to unionize as a result of the vote, held October 8.

The vote garnered an 87% participation rate among animators known for work on projects such as Star Trek: Lower Decks and Star Wars: Galaxy of Adventures.

“Animation workers in Los Angeles have benefited from representation by the IATSE for years and we look forward to representing animation workers in Canada,” IATSE International president Matthew D. Loeb said in a statement.

The union said it will commence working with Titmouse on developing a collective agreement.

“There has been enthusiasm in Vancouver to form an animation union for years. This overwhelming mandate from Titmouse workers is part of a groundswell across our industry,” Animation Guild spokeswoman Vanessa Kelly said in a statement.

“This vote is the first step in acknowledging animation workers as vital members of our industry, deserving a voice in shaping and improving it. The courage of Titmouse workers made this first step possible.”

The West Coast animation industry has been subject to criticism for its working conditions in the past, which drew support for workers from other unions.

B.C.’s Employment Standards Branch ruled two years ago in favour of local animators who didn’t receive overtime pay for work on Seth Rogen’s 2016 comedy Sausage Party.

Cinesite Vancouver Inc. (formerly Nitrogen Studios Canada Inc.) was hit with a $500 fine and ordered to compensate B.C. animators for unpaid overtime work.

The animation studio had argued it was exempt from certain requirements under the Employment Standards Act because it was a “high technology company” employing “high technology professionals.”

Nitrogen pointed to animators’ use of software and computers to produce animations as evidence they should be considered high-tech workers.

Rodney J. Strandberg, delegate of the director of employment standards, determined that not every employee using technology for their work is considered a high-tech professional.

“If this were correct, every employee using in his or her employment, a computer, telephone, or motor vehicle would fall within the exemption,” he said in his decision.

“The employer has not shown through cogent, relevant, and reliable evidence that its employees, including its animators, and their activities when working, fall within the definition of a "high technology professional."

Unifor Local 2000 filed the complaint on behalf of the non-unionized animators in August 2016.

Cinesite acquired Nitrogen Studios in March 2017, before the action was launched against the local studio.

The new parent company told BIV at the time that it was fully co-operating with the B.C. Employment Standards Branch and providing “historical data” where possible as requested.

“Employee welfare is at the centre of our business in Vancouver and we wish all past employees of Nitrogen well,” the statement said.