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'The Simpsons' production workers go union, saying they deserve a place at the table

Employees at the studio behind shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy say their parent company has recognized their union, and it could signal a big shift in animation.

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The Simpsons is the longest running show on television. Production workers who make the show say they deserve the same protections as the writers and animators.
The Simpsons is the longest running show on television. Production workers who make the show say they deserve the same protections as the writers and animators. Courtesy of Disney Media & Entertainment
Updated July 1, 2022 at 9:55 AM ET

Production workers at the long-running animated television shows The Simpsons, American Dad! and Family Guy have gained voluntary recognition from their parent company, 20th Television Animation, to join The Animation Guild.

According to a statement from the union, "the production workers won with 90% support across all three shows."

Workers said they are hoping to receive benefits, such as health care and retirement, but also to change the way production work is seen in the industry.

Jobs like production supervisor, coordinator and writers assistant are often seen as stepping-stone jobs, said Ashley Cooper, a production manager for The Simpsons, even though they're integral to making sure shows get on the air.

But for many people, these jobs become careers.

"So people can wind up spending many years in something that's seen as a job for a young person to do for six months," said Cooper.

Unionizing isn't rare in animation. Animators, actors and writers are all a part of their respective guilds. But production work has long been excluded from these unions. And as such, production workers often receive much worse benefits than the union counterparts they work with every day to get the show on the air.

"It doesn't feel like everything is equal," said Laura Smalec, a production coordinator at Family Guy. "You cannot have a show without production workers. So I think that's the moral of the story at the end of the day."

In recent months, smaller groups of production employees at different workplaces have unionized – these include the animation studio Titmouse, and the workers at Rick & Morty and Solar Opposites.

Jason Jones, a production supervisor for American Dad!, said that he hopes the move is a beacon to other animation production workers. "I would hope that it galvanizes everyone else to organize and recognize their own self-worth and not believe in that old studio construct that production is somehow a stepping stone to a better career path."

Because, says Jones, many of them love the jobs they have now. They don't want to move on to something else.

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Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, there's a big shake-up at the offices of one of this country's most beloved entertainment institutions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SIMPSONS THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) The Simpsons.

MARTIN: Production workers at "The Simpsons" and other shows are hoping to join a union. Now, unions aren't rare in animated TV. Writers, actors and animators are all part of their respective guilds, but generally not production workers. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more on the people trying to change that.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Ashley Cooper is the production manager for the retakes department on "The Simpsons." It's one of those jobs where it's kind of hard to pin down exactly what her day to day is like, but she describes it as being the caboose on the train.

ASHLEY COOPER: I get the show in color. We all screen it for any mistakes or issues. We get the rewrite, we perform the tasks to get the rewrite back in color, and then we make sure it goes on the television when it's supposed to.

LIMBONG: Cooper has been on the production team with "The Simpsons" since 2005, and she says that the perception of production jobs - that's production managers, coordinators, writers assistants and more - is that they're a short-term stopover. But these jobs become careers, says Cooper.

COOPER: So people can wind up spending many years in something that's seen as, like, a job for a young person to do for six months.

LIMBONG: Cooper says production workers' benefits are much weaker compared to the union co-workers she works every day with to get the show on the air. So Cooper and more than 80 other production workers at "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" and "American Dad!" filed with the National Labor Relations Board to join the Animation Guild. The parent company, Disney, hasn't responded to NPR for a comment. Here's Jason Jones. At "American Dad!" he's the production supervisor of the animatic timing department.

JASON JONES: I feel like this is a beacon, to see a show like "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" and "American Dad!" having union organization efforts for animation production workers.

LIMBONG: Talks of unionizing were happening back in 2019, before the pandemic, before this broader wave of unionization across all industries we're seeing today. The pandemic put the topic on the back burner. But recently, in the niche community of animation, production workers at a few smaller studios started unionizing. But "American Dad!" "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" are about as mainstream as you can get in animation. And Jones is hoping this move changes the industry's view of production workers as just a steppingstone because, he says, they love animation production work, and they're good at it, too.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY ELFMAN'S "THE SIMPSONS THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.