A Union for Visual Effects


#1

I’ve participated in a few discussions that revolve around the issues of labor and visual effects in these forums. In those discussions, I’ve been asked many questions about the mechanics of a union, the process of unionization and what a contract holds or entails. Recently, I proposed to start a thread where questions about the mechanics of our union could be posed and further discussion about unions in visual effects could take place.

For those who have not met me yet, I am Steve Kaplan and the Labor Organizer for The Animation Guild, Local 839 of IATSE . We are a labor organization that represents animation and visual effects artists in the Los Angeles and surrounding area. We currently represent artists at studios like Disney, DreamWorks, Sony Pictures Animation, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, among many others.

My job responsibilities include facilitating the organization of animation and visual effects artists not currently covered by our contract, outreach and interfacing with our membership, and providing a public and online presence for the Local. I feel forums such as this are an integral part of public outreach and I enjoy the opportunity to speak about our organization and what we have to offer.

My intention for this thread is to provide a venue for questions from a voice inside the IATSE as well as offer a place for open discussion about organization and the role of a union in visual effects. I realize that this venue is multi-national and multi-cultural and the topic of unions means much different things to the wide range of people who read these threads. I hope that the discussions to come can respect the differences that are present here. I hail from the sunny shores of Southern California and my facts and opinions are based in the reality that I encounter. While I will attempt to answer any question posed to me, I ask that you understand the limitations of my field of knowledge.

I also understand that these forums are visited by those just finding interest in the field of visual effects, those who are experiencing that field and also by those who’ve explored its boundaries over years and even decades. I will attempt to tailor my answers to fit your experience level as best I can.

I look forward to your questions and comments.


#2

I am curious about unionization. Having never worked at a union shop, I don’t know what it’s all about, but I know there’s been meetings going on here in LA and I’ve heard mixed reactions. Most people I’ve talked to don’t want to rock the boat and are glad to be employed. Not sure what to think yet since I don’t work at a VFX company at the moment (in games right now) and haven’t been to any meetings yet…

So, what is it all about? Can you give us a summary of what’s going on, how we might be affected, and what the pros/cons are for/against unionizing? Obviously you must be pro union since you’re here to answer questions on IATSE’s behalf…but that’s cool, even if you are biased, I still want to learn more about it.

Thanks!

Oh, and what is a labor organizer? I mean, what is your job exactly?


#3

-dc-

Thanks so much for your question. Indeed, there have been quite a few meetings in Los Angeles recently about organizing visual effects under a union contract. Organizing is about offering visual effects artists the benefits of utilizing the strength of a collective voice to level the power of the decision-making process of policies and procedures in the workplace. Working under a contract that is formed considering the needs of the labor force, that group can set standards and expectations that address issues that have been of concern for them.

Unions are advocates and representatives of their members. We stand for them in contract negotiations, we assist in upholding the stipulations of the contract, we set wage and workplace minimums. Take a minute to read our contract. In it you’ll find topics like:
[ul]
[li]expected weekly or daily hours
[/li][li]vacation days
[/li][li]working conditions
[/li][li]dismissal pay
[/li][li]discipline and discharge
[/li][/ul]

among many others. These have been hammered out through years of trial and error, artist request and company approval.

We feel visual effects artists would benefit from having a stable and consistent platform to rely on in the tumultuous field they work in. Our goal is to provide a seamless cloak of contractual benefits and protections throughout the industry.

Currently, as you mentioned, we are interested in meeting with as many artists as we can. We are holding meetings regularly and focus on artists groups based on studios. How would you be affected? If you’re working at a studio where artists have contacted and are meeting with us, you may be asked to attend one of those meetings. If you do, you’ll hear a union representative talk about the benefits that come with membership (here in LA, besides the contractual rights afforded members, there is also eligibility in the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans). You may also be asked to sign a representation card which is part of the organizing process.

As you mentioned, my bias will most likely come through in this answer. What are the pros and cons? The chief among the pros would be the added resources and benefits that would be portable to the artist. The chief among the cons is the idea of change itself. As corny as that sounds, its an incredibly fearful thing that I’ve found people will avoid that the expense of their own well being.

Finally, my job is outreach. A Labor Organizer facilitates workers banding together to bring their employer to the bargaining table. This is achieved through the organizing process. My job also entails interfacing with our membership in the attempt to bring involvement and awareness.


#4

Hey, thanks for chiming in on this Steve, I think this is quite topical considering the vfx-burn out threads etc. I am also really curious to unions and how they work.

A studio I worked at had a very influencial member of the “VEA” (Visual Effects Assosiation) and most of my knowledge of unions such as IATSE come from him. I also attended a meeting with IATSE with other members of the VFX community. It was an interesting conversation and they spoke a lot about the perks of the union and I got to talk with some of the vfx artists who were already in the union.

As I understand it, the VEA’s biggest complaint about IATSE taking over the vfx industry is the lack of proper pay grades that match up to what vfx artists currently make. IATSE members have assured that these pay grades will increase over time, but can we count on that?

Also another aspect I’ve been informed of is that if vfx positions were unionized, that would mean other union members from other departments could apply for vfx jobs and cross over departments. This goes back to the pay grade issue. Should a set-painter make the same amount of money as say a matte painter? Should a set-painter be able the transfer departments and become the matte painter? I really don’t think this should be allowed. These are completely different jobs with completely different skillsets. As far as I understand, the union would consider these jobs to be equal in pay, skill and seniority in this example.

Having said all that, I do really see the perks of having a union. I would love to be able to have a medical and dental plan, that job security and protection from being overworked and underpaid for said work. In theory the idea of a union sounds great, but is it really all that it’s cooked up to be?


#5

Thanks Steve for answering the questions. I have a few more to follow-up, if you don’t mind me asking…

Are you trying to unionize the larger shops here, like Imageworks, DD, and Rhythm and Hues, as well as the smaller shops too? How is that even possible, given the number of places that exist? Doesn’t each place have to go through the unionization process one shop at a time? Sounds like a huge pain in the ass…like, for example, if I hop from small place to large place back to small place, and only 1 out of 3 of them is union…where exactly does that leave me? Alot of us are hired for a specific project, and you never really know where your next gig is going to be. Sounds to me like it has to be an all or nothing deal or it won’t work. I wouldn’t want to be in a union with benefits, only to lose those benefits because my next gig is non-union…that would be a big concern for me.

When I was at Imageworks, I remember SPA (sony animation) was union, but we were not, and people were going back and forth on whether it was good or bad…but we (Imagworks) didn’t care because Sony had great benefits already. Of course, I lost those benefits when I left…so that sucks…

Anyways, how do you unionize a business that has so many different shops? Like for me, right now being on a game project, I would be left out, and it wouldn’t do me any good until I work on a film at a union shop…so, my past 9 years of film work would add up to what? nothing? I guess I would need to see how it translates into my career. It’s not like Detroit, where there are 3 auto makers and you have the same gig your whole life. We end up working all over in this business…seems kinda impossible to organize anything…


#6

Unions:
1. Protect workers
2. Promote better working conditions
3. Bring forth collective democratic involvement in workplace
4. Promote higher pay

 Here's how a person could rebut those points:
 
 1. YOU'RE A BIG FAT BABBY PROTECT URSELF, UNIONS ARE LIKE UR MOMMY AND U JUST WANNA KEEP SUCKLIN ON HER TITTY HUH? WELL NO CAN DO WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD BUDDY IF YOU CANT TAKE THE HEAT GET OUTTA MY POPCORN MACHINE!
 
 2. OH JEEZ BABBY WANTS TO WORK WITH HIS BLANKY ON LAYING DOWN ON THE COUCH. NO SHIT GETS DONE IF OUR WORKERS ARENT LETTIN MOLTEN STEEL DRIP ALL OVER THEIR ARMS AND CLIMBING 100 FEET UP FLIMSY WOODEN LADDERS. THATS WHAT REALLY BUILT THIS COUNTRY AND IF YOU DONT LOVE IT YOU CAN LEAVE IT OK!
 
 3. WHAT THE *DOES THAT MEAN YOU FILTHY PINKO COMMIE * A WORKPLACE ISNT A GODDAMN COUNTRY ITS A PLACE WHERE I TELL YOU WHAT TO DO AND THEN YOU CAN TAKE A LITTLE SCRAP OF MY HARD EARNED MONEY AND TRY TO MAKE A LIVING OUT OF IT! NO MORE NO LESS IF YOU WANNA MAKE AN OMELET U GOTTA BREAK A FEW EGGS BABBY
 
 4. IF BABBY WANTS A RAISE BABBY CAN GROVEL FOR IT LIKE THE LITTLE BITCH HE IS! MAYBE IF HE WANTED A RAISE SO BAD HED FIND SOMEONE ELSE WHOD PAY HIM MORE AND THEN ID THINK ABOUT IT, BABBY CANT JUST DECIDE THAT HE DOESNT LIKE WHAT I GIVE HIM AND TRY AND SHUT DOWN MY GODDAMNED SWEATSHOP BECAUSE OF IT. NO SIR THATS NOT HOW IT WORKS IF YOU CANT RIDE TWO HORSES AT ONCE THEN MAYBE YOU SHOULD GET THE HELL OUT OF MY CIRCUS!
 
 Unfortunately just because American workers have come to expect a level of income that allows them to support a family, own a home, have access to healthcare, and lead a relatively lavish lifestyle, that does not imply that they should be entitled to this sort of lifestyle. American union workers have obtained this level of prosperity by means of coercion. By exploiting monopoly power which corporations by law may not possess, they had over the course of a century driven up prices to levels which were absurdly inflated. Recent years have seen the power of unions unwind alongside low inflation caused by the outsourcing of overpaid jobs to emerging economies. A union salary can support easily 10 or 20 workers in a poor country where they work longer hours, but they also obtain a chance to survive and move up the ladder. As their economies grow, the entire world benefits from new markets and cheaper goods. Unions would interfere with free markets and free trade to ensure their own prosperity over the prosperity of the rest of humanity if they had their way. More often than not, these unions are oligarchical institutions that support the interests of the bosses over the people they unionize anyway. Beyond that, they bully other workers who want to maintain their individual rights through legislation like the card check. 
 
 
 [http://dailycollegian.com/2010/04/26/unions-protect-bad-teachers-not-students/](http://dailycollegian.com/2010/04/26/unions-protect-bad-teachers-not-students/)

#7

girloftomorrow -

Thanks for adding to the conversation. Its good to meet you.

I’ve heard of the VEA[BC] but have no first hand knowledge of the organization. I’ve only visited Vancouver a handful of times and most of my knowledge of the industry in Canada comes from friends and acquaintances who work up there. Maybe you’re referring to the VES?

While I may take exception to you saying that the IA will “take over” the industry, your point about job classifications is a good one. The proper classification of employees with regard to wage minimums will be an issue that will arise with any contract negotiation. One of the challenges of the vfx industry is the constant and regular creation and modification of job titles. In our current wage minimums (starting on page 64), you can see that some job classifications are grouped together while others are broken apart. I expect this to be a regular topic at new and recurring negotiations to add, reclassify and readjust the titles and minimums.

Another note on the topic of pay increases, the IATSE always attempts to negotiate cost-of-living increases into their contract negotiations with the producers. These increases typically have been between 2-3% each year for the three years of the contract. We reported back in November that SAG has negotiated 2% increases in their contract with an additional 1.5% contribution to their health and pension plans.

To your second question, I am confused. Could other union members apply for vfx jobs by virtue of being a fellow union member? Certainly. They could apply for those positions now. The likelihood of them receiving them are just as possible. The union contract does not stipulate who can or can not be hired. It is still up to the company to hire whom they deem best for their positions.


#8

Please dont compare this to a teachers union. Also, this is supposed to a be a professional forum. Please don’t write in all CAPS. Also, no baby voice please were all adults here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od41fYA5aQo

I’d have much more to say to someone like you but it is just not worth it. Something tells me that you don’t even work in the VFX industry…


#9

Maybe this from left field, but I have experience with Unions outside the animation industry, and have been lukewarm to them.

I was a apprentice chef for some time, and had to join the Union when hired at a extremely high profile hotel. Cooking is a very transient field with high demands(much like this field). It worked for us there, it almost seemed like there was no union. Other places not so, but really it all depends on the crew you are with, the contract, etc. Basically it was a blanket protection thing. Benefit and wage guidelines plus extended employee protections, etc. I would think it is no different in the CGI industry.

In fact when I was cooking, I knew someone who is was a senior in the Union in Vancouver(she is a VFX artist). Vancouver has a lot of production there- so, something is working… But on the other hand, I would think it very protectionist, ie; no membership, thin pickings for work or no work at all on contracted Union projects. But a membership could be a good leg up for someone new to the scene, and keep veteran artists employed. I guess it really matters on the work culture of where you are and what you do in the field.

It would be interesting to hear from those who do work in the Unions that do exist.


#10

Could we please keep this specific to the vfx and animation industry?


#11

Yeah, it really sucks when someone mentions a vfx union and everyone starts yelling about teachers unions or labor unions in general. Someone point out one bad thing about the current animation guild.


#12

Also why does anyone think California is broke. Unions are a part of the reason. Just look at what is happening is Massachusetts and what is being done about it. Don’t get me started on Illegal Aliens, Welfare, Entitlements, High Taxes, Extreme Environmentalism. Welcome to Greece in the US. Why does anyone think bis. is moving out of California? Give me a break.Wonder if we will succeed?And if i do not reply, well, anyone with any amount of common sense and knowledge should know what the big deal is already. No disrespect intended.


#13

My pleasure -dc-. Thanks again for contributing.

We are trying to sign any and all companies to a union contract.  The size of the company makes no difference to me, as the Organizer.  Is it tedious?  Will it take a while?  Well, it will take some time and  the process of organizing isn't nearly as challenging as answering some of the fear-mongering excuses for arguments I've run in to.  Its important to treat each studio and company differently as each one will have specific needs and qualifications for their contract.  While during a contract negotiation, we would most certainly use our contracts as a base for negotiations, we fully expect each negotiation to have is own quirks and issues.  

What would going from union to non-union shops entail?  We have that happen all the time with our members.  While working at one of [the studios](http://animationguild.org/studio-list/) that have a contract with us, its business as usual for the members.  As soon as one leaves, they contact us and request to have their dues payments stopped until they return to a union shop.  If they've worked enough time, they could have the ability to extend their health coverage up to 17 months after leaving their next job.  That could cover them for the length of the next job and until they return which means .. not losing their health coverage at all.  As VFX Soldier put it in [his blog post](http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/to-organize-or-not-to-organize/):

After I left the guild contracted facility, I found out that I could continue to be fully covered by that plan for another 17 months and not have to pay a dime. That’s right, a year and a half of the best health insurance I ever had for free. I used that as leverage against my next employer to boost my pay since I didn’t need to use their crappy health insurance.

I’m familiar with the benefits that used to be offered at Imageworks. The Animation Guild and the IA attempted to organize the facility about a year and a half ago. At the time, the artists at Imageworks enjoyed some awesome benefits. Well, at least the artists who were staff. From what I’ve been told, there were three tiers of employees and not all the artists enjoyed the same benefits. I understand that after the organization effort ended back then, there were big changes to the benefits package offered. From what has been explained to me, the benefits offered through the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan are comparable if not better than what’s currently being offered.


#14

@Chris25
Dont bring politics into this. Your just bitter and angry.


#15

I think the VFX industry in general has allowed itself to become devalued and left with little to no power within the larger Film/TV industry. This is despite the fact VFX plays an undeniably key role in just about every large scale production these days, not to mention the complete dependence the contemporary “Block Buster” has on VFX.

I wonder if wide spread Unionization within large and mid-sized VFX shops could be a way of strengthening the VFX industry as a whole? Often things of a known value are more desirable and predictable then just going with the cheapest thing you can find. Unionization adds this tangible value by defining work hours, conditions, pay etc. Therefore the VFX house knows it’s true cost and it’s out in the open. Therefore low balling every bid (which is how VFX houses work themselves out of business IMHO) becomes obviously impractical. This levels the playing field to some degree where quality and type of work becomes the focus rather than raw numbers.

Once could then argue that all the VFX jobs would simply head overseas to avoid this structured pricing. Not so sure about that. For a certain high-end level of work and integration within the larger production (don’t forget Previz, on-set VFX direction etc.) proximity will always matter. As long as there is a strong Film industry in the states there should too be a strong VFX industry.

Steve, what’s your take on the current state of many shops? With the recent closings of Cafe FX, the Asylum etc. Is there only a perceptual loss here or is there real danger of the industry becoming anemic?


#16

My personal experience with unions has been thus far in my life less then shiny. My views probably are closest to Leigh’s as far as overall (little differences here and there)

That aside I was just curious, and dont take this as an attack or anything other than me wondering, but what is your background Steve? Were you an animator that felt the need to organize? a vfx artist that was treated poorly and wanted to make a change? I am just curious to what spurred you to get into organizing for animators and VFX folk.


#17

I’ve said it before in these type of threads. I grew up generally against unions. I worked in hospitality, labor, etc growing up, and definitely had sentiments like Leigh mentioned. People had no incentive to work harder, or do certain things “well that’s not my job” kinda stuff. But to me, the animation union provides too many benefits to dismiss.

I’m not necessarily some old timer, but been to a fair amount of studios (both live action and animation). I generally think the union offers more benefits than non union shops by far. I mean, they have a pension? wow. Granted, you have to stay in the union to keep accumulating these benefits or keep them, which I’ve brought up to Steve in the past. It definitely seems there are far more 2d shops covered, which makes sense given the roots of the union. With IMD closing, the only 3d places I can recall are Disney and DW, am I missing any?

I really don’t know what would happen if the vfx shops got unionized. With the amount of work heading overseas now due to cost, I’m not sure if this will be some straw that breaks the camel’s back. For a while it looked like mostly positions like matchmoving or roto were heading overseas, but more and more I’ve seen the more specialized work like cloth/hair (what I do) go there too.

I guess my point is…at least they’re trying to protect us? :shrug:


#18

sconlogue,

Thanks for your questions and views. Its good to meet you.

I am of the mind that unionization of the visual effects industry would provide the visual effects artist portable contractual protections and well deserved benefits to a scale that can only be seen in other disciplines in the entertainment industry. You make excellent points as to the value to a business and to the artist having a union contract in place could bring. Its been successfully argued that in some visual effects studios, the changes having a union contract in place bring would be negligible due to the level of fair and equitable treatment given to the artist already. Each studio should and will be fairly represented in contract negotiations and their specific needs will be addressed.

As for strengthening the industry, I believe it falls outside the purview of the union to make that change. I believe the industry is in desperate need for said change and we are in the beginning stages of it now. Steve Hulett and I have written about the closures of Asylum , CafeFX , the Costs of Organizing and the nature of VFX Facilities in Los Angeles.

In summary and in an attempt to answer your question, the state of the industry in Los Angeles is the same as it has been: evolving with the technology, expanding with demand and suffering the loss of those who don’t want to play the game any longer. We have the unique ability to say we work within driving proximity to the studios who make the films which gives our town an advantage in some respects. While the growth of visual effects around the globe is certainly remarkable, its in direct response to the growth of visual effects in respect to its penetration in media as a whole. You’re not just making pretty pictures for films any longer and the demand for effects has skyrocketed. The common perception was that if you’re going to open a studio, you’re crowning achievement would be a credit on a rolling list on a movie screen. Thankfully, that also is beginning to change.


#19

RobW720,

Its a fair question and one that I certainly don’t take as insulting or hostile. I enjoyed a 10 year run as a freelance visual effects artist in the Los Angeles area. In that time, I didn’t work consistently and had to take other jobs to pay my bills. I understood the challenges of being a freelance artist and accepted them as part of the risk of “working in the craft”.

I cut my teeth on Lightwave back in version 5. I comp’d in Shake, Fusion and After Effects. I started to learn Maya as I felt it was adapt or starve. I worked as a “Generalist” back when that position was the accepted norm and found having to choose a specialty a difficult choice. My last vfx gig was on a small team of artists working directly for John Nelson on Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Had I continued in the field, I would have paid to continue to learn Maya and Nuke and made an attempt at succeeding as a compositor.

I’ve written about my foray into organized labor at the blog I’ve started. You can read that story on this page.

I started my journey into learning about unions quite serendipitously. After purchasing an iPhone, I became interested in podcasts. I subscribed to FXGuide’s two podcasts almost immediately and was treated to the Interview with Lee Stranahan and the Interview with Steve Hulett. After taking the two hours to listen to them both, I learned that:

[ul]
[li]the need for having the protections and benefits not only exist, but fighting against them was something that only benefited the studios
[/li][li]a local chapter of the union I was familiar with had already been established for visual effects artists
[/li][/ul]

I did further research and talked with friends and peers. Everyone thought a union would be great, but who was going to do anything about it? Soon after, I started my regular routine of checking the job boards online. My job would be ending soon, but my bills wouldn’t. In my search, I discovered that TAG was looking for an organizer. I had my chance to be that person.


#20

clipped from earlier posts:

What if I don’t want to join the union if I get a job at a union shop? Would the union shop risk breaching their contract with you if the hired me anyway? You speak a lot about the advantages of being in a union from the perspective of the worker. What advantages are offered to the studio? Why would a studio want to hire union employees? Why would a studio want to sign your contract?