TAG in the White House

Rachel Gitlevich shares her journey from Titmouse NY union organizer to the Oval Office.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Oval Office with Union organizers
Gitlevich (front left) in the Oval Office with union organizers, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.

Working in animation for the past 12 years, with 10 of those at Titmouse in New York, Rachel Gitlevich has hopped around between design and retakes and is now a Retakes Supervisor for the forthcoming series KIFF being produced for the Disney Channel. She was also instrumental in organizing Titmouse NY, which led her to an unprecedented meeting at the White House with organizers from other unions around the country, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Vice President Kamala Harris, and President Joe Biden. 

President Joe Biden shaking woman's hand
Gitlevich with President Joe Biden in the Roosevelt Room of The White House.
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.

What inspired you to get involved in union organizing? 

I was on a particularly challenging show. This was the first time in my life where I was like, I could get fired and I’ll be happy if that happens. I got all the other animators into a meeting [at] a restaurant a few blocks away. I just wanted to check in with everybody, and every single animator showed up, which completely floored me. We talked about our problems, and we’re like, how do we solve this, what do we need to make this production work? We put together a list, and a couple of my co-workers and I came to our line producer and said, this isn’t working, this is what we need from you guys. There was a lot of pushback in the initial meeting, but then we got half of those things, and the production got so much better. 

[Later], I started listening to podcasts and reading books on [organizing], educating myself. And on the other side, [animator] Smo Smolinski and I started meeting regularly and talking about labor issues. It got me to thinking. Back then we didn’t talk about wages. We didn’t talk about working conditions. All the artists, we internalized everything. Anything that went wrong, we didn’t think it was a systemic issue. We thought there was something wrong with us. We were so scared of sharing anything for fear of seeming incompetent or weak, or that we just weren’t handling things like everybody else was. I feel like once I broke that barrier with Smo and started breaking that barrier more seriously with other workers, I realized, oh, everybody felt the same way I did. And I thought, we could do something about this. 

Gitlevich with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Oval Office.
fficial White House Photo by Adam Schultz.

How did you become involved in organizing Titmouse NY?

I’m a social butterfly. Something I was always a little bit ashamed of because I spent maybe a little bit more time chatting than working. But wow, what a payoff. I know half the studio. So I could reach out to people. I started talking with not just the people at Titmouse, but animators in general, in 2019. And in the beginning of 2020, the animators of NY, regardless of studio, had a town hall. [At around that time] we met [TAG Organizer] Ben Speight who coached us to success. We formed an organizing committee and did all the 1-on-1s. I was one of the founding organizers. It wasn’t just me, but I was probably the most spicy about it.

Gitlevich with TAG Organizer Ben Speight.

How did your involvement in organizing lead to your visit to the White House?

I got a call from Ben Speight, and he asks, “Do you want to go to the White House?” I thought he was joking. [But] The White House [had] reached out to the IATSE who reached out to The Animation Guild and said, we want to send a couple people from [the Titmouse NY] negotiating committee to The White House to meet with people there about your campaign. I thought, that is the most out of the blue phone call I’ll ever get.

Then I get an email from Erica at the White House asking if she could have a background meeting with me. I thought it was going to be with other people, and then they decided it was just going to be me. And yeah, we chatted, and she said, great, I’ll see you on Thursday. I was like—what? What! Struck by lightning is how I would describe it. 

A selfie in the Vice President’s office.

Describe your actual visit to The White House.

The visitor’s entrance is on the west side of The White House. It’s pretty unassuming! There’s a little security kiosk you pass through. The part of the White House I was in used to house the Navy, so you walk up the naval stairs—there are giant bronze anchors flanking it—and into the kitchen of Who Framed Roger Rabbit … I mean, The White House. The black-and-white checkered floors are pretty alarming! They had us wait in a room for a bit, but we were free to go downstairs and see The White House gift shop and eat at the cafeteria. They then treated us to a quick visit to the Vice President’s office. It was gorgeous! 

Once the VP and Labor Secretary were ready for us, we went back out and down the naval stairs, across the street, and bam—we were in The West Wing! They led us through into the Roosevelt Room, which was a pretty wide room with a huge table. The most amusing part was seeing a Space Force flag. I wish I could have gotten a picture with it. Alas! To my utter surprise the Oval Office is literally right next to the Roosevelt Room. It was surreal.

“At some point you just have to get off your keister and do something.”

I think they really downplayed how big a deal this was to us. At first I thought it was a meeting with somebody at the White House. Then it was, you’re meeting with Labor Secretary Walsh. Well, that makes sense. And oh, the Vice President. I didn’t know this fell under her purview. Then the president! 

It is really a testament to how much Washington cares about this issue that they even bothered to have this meeting. It’s an unspoken fear, I think for everybody in that room, that there’s not much that Washington can do for us. But … the point of this meeting is to inspire workers across the country to organize. I got an opportunity to talk to [Amazon organizer] Chris Smalls a little bit, and I asked him, how did you organize 8,000 employees? We were only 114. The formula was identical to what we did at Titmouse. The language was identical to what we did at Titmouse. Labor organizing is just 1-on-1 conversations and meeting people where they’re at. Talking to them over and over and over again. And the commonality here is how do you get a person from the point of, I’m scared, this is risky, to I can do this. That’s the biggest hurdle. So by having this meeting at the White House, hopefully that pushes somebody over that hurdle.

What did you feel was the most important thing to share in the meeting?

[During preparations] we were told … focus on you and your personal story. But then when Vice President Harris was giving her speech, one of the questions she asked us was, what do you think the future of organizing should look like? I kind of scrapped half of what I was going to say. So I mixed in half of my story—and I pray to God I didn’t come off as patronizing to the Vice President of the United States—with listen, this is a global movement. We’re fighting titans of industry here. It’s not just our bosses. The future of organizing is all about diversity. It’s about flexibility. We have to redefine what it means to work in this country before we can understand how to organize around it. 

I kind of went wildly off script. But [I said] basically, storytelling is the cornerstone of our culture. You go anywhere in the world, and everybody knows our [country’s] stories, our cities, our politics. That’s because of the entertainment industry. And animation industry workers, it takes five to eight years for us to get our degrees. Our expertise is comparable to engineers and architects and computer programmers, and we make a fraction of the money with the same amount of training. 

I talked about how animation is everywhere. If you take away visual effects, you don’t have summer blockbusters. If you take way motion graphics, you don’t have news channels, you don’t have apps, any of that kind of stuff. Everybody wants to be entertained. If you take animation out of the entertainment industry, it collapses in on itself. And it’s one of America’s biggest exports. 

Gitlevich on the job.

What part of your personal story did you share?

I almost cried when I talked to Vice President Harris about how I was working—this was not at Titmouse, it was another job—20 hours a day and was told that my output wasn’t high enough. And the pressure we’re under, the quotas. And how the entire department just got obliterated in a day because somebody else in the production pipeline screwed up. The stuff that animation workers deal with. It’s really hard. 

Is there anything you wish you would have shared that you didn’t have the opportunity to? 

I regret not talking about the negotiation committee a little bit more. I also wanted to say that Chris and Amazon, that’s an example of a really, really awful relationship between employers and employees. And I wanted to talk about Titmouse being such a positive one. I wish I had gotten the opportunity to sort of commend Titmouse’s behavior, especially in contrast to Amazon while I was there. While workers need an example and inspiration, I think that employers also need to see, oh, Titmouse organized, they’re wall-to-wall organized, and business is booming. Maybe unionizing isn’t such a bad idea. 

Why was your visit important for the Guild and animation workers specifically? 

This is huge because animators are very close to the bottom … in terms of how we are valued as an industry in general. I’m gonna be extra spicy and blame institutions like the Oscars and the Academy for disrespecting us so openly. Animation is one of the most powerful artforms on the planet. We encompass illustration. We encompass everything, and we tell stories. We can evoke anything. You can pick any artform, put it to time, and it becomes animation. So the fact that we’re infantilized—oh, it’s just kids’ stuff. The amount of times I’ve been back-handedly insulted for being in animation.

We shape how children see the world. We’re there with you from the beginning. And there’s a ton of adult animation out there, as well. We held down the fort during the pandemic. We as a craft have been economically and culturally deeply undervalued for too long. I think that being recognized by The White House—I really hope it shows people that animation is just as important. 

What’s next for you as an organizer and Union member?

We prepping for our first contract negotiations [coming up] in the beginning of August and are writing those proposals. Maybe with the backing of the White House we can ask a bit more for our first contract.