IATSE Formally Announces Visual Effects organizing Drive

For over a year IATSE has been working with members of the Visual Effects community to establish an organizing campaign for artists. To that end they are formally and publicly announcing that effort. In addition they have hired Jim Goodman as a full time representative whose sole responsibility will be to organize VFX artists into IATSE. After the jump you will find a link to a letter sent by International President Matthew D. Loeb to the Visual Effects Society with the details of this effort. Here is an excerpt:

“The IATSE represents more than 112,000 entertainment industry workers. Over 25,000 of our 60,000 members who work making motion pictures throughout the U.S. and Canada are in Los Angeles. These members enjoy the protections of the largest entertainment union in the world. The contracts under which they work provide for working conditions and benefit plans that are second to none. But there is an important group missing from our union, The Visual Effects Artists, and it is my firm belief that their rightful home is within the IATSE.”

Some background and the complete letter follows….

IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees is the same guild that represents Cinematographers (local 600), Art Directors (local 800), Animation Guild (local 839), Motion Picture Editors Guild (local 700)… see this wikipedia entry for a complete list, but it is safe to say that the majority of people on a film set are under IATSE.

What does this mean? What about the recent IBEW announcements? How does this work with recent efforts of The Animation Guild to expand representation of Visual Effects artists? We have extended an invitation to both IATSE and IBEW to come on the fxpodcast and talk directly to artists and explain what they feel they can offer. We hope they will take us up on that very soon.

Here is the letter from IATSE to VES:

90 thoughts on “IATSE Formally Announces Visual Effects organizing Drive”

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  3. I just hope IATSE doesn’t botch this like they did when Sony Imageworks was looking to join the union 6-7 years ago. The head IATSE brass come in like teamsters and scare everyone away.

    839 knows how to handle artists and how to not look like the evil union. IATSE should leave it to 839 to organize.

      1. Deke and David –

        Its great to hear more positive words about representation and of The Animation Guild, Local 839. We’ve proudly represented artists in animation and visual effects for years and look forward to many years more of service.

        The IATSE is no stranger to artists and workers in the entertainment industry. They are fully aware of our history with our members and the field with which we endeavor to organize and represent. They haven’t become the largest and strongest entertainment union by not listening to the needs of their members or misunderstanding the industry and its requirements.

        As is mentioned by President Loeb, the need of the visual effects industry has been carefully measured and evaluated. IATSE has taken pains to evaluate the industry and its needs in order to best protect the artists and workers with contractual stipulations and benefits.

        While the International is preparing to announce their plans, Local 839 stands proud to assist in any way we can.

        1. Hey Steven.

          How do you think the recent NZ “union smackdown” might affect this drive? I imagine the studio is pretty proud of themselves right now for getting the extra $25MIL in incentives and helping to pass the “anti organizing” legislature.

          1. Good morning Spanky,

            I believe the recent travesty to labor rights in New Zealand was a blow to the artists and working people of that country. What’s worse, it was welcomed with open arms because it was dressed up as a necessity and sold as the only way to keep the people employed. I believe it set a dangerous precedent and its effects in New Zealand will be felt for years to come.

            I also believe that in our organizing efforts here in the US, it will be a talking point for both sides. The pro-organization voice will use it as a rallying call while the anti-voice will say something to the effect of “this is the way of things to come”.

            Steve Kaplan
            Labor Organizer
            The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE

          2. It’s pretty clear neither Spanky, nor Steve Kaplan has any clue what they’re talking about when it comes to the situation in New Zealand. It’s actually kind of embarrassing for you reading these comments. I can understand why you would want Union representation in the US given the lack of a public health system and some employers who frankly, take the piss. But that’s not the case down here where we’re very well looked after by the government and the post production companies on the whole. No-one holds a gun to our heads and makes us sign a contract and they’re individually negotiable and I think, more than fair on the whole. You’re after union representation in the US, good luck, I wish you well but the situation in New Zealand has nothing to do with that and you’re frankly just using misinformation here to further your cause incorrectly.

            The reality of the change to legislation here makes not one iota of difference for anyone working in this industry. It’s merely a clarification of the law here after a local employment court made a decision not exactly based on commonsense about 6 years ago. All that decision has done is remove any possibility of a contractor later suing the company they worked for and the Production Company claiming employee rights when they signed a freelance contract. That’s it. Nothing more.

            It has not set a dangerous precedent at all, and it cannot be applied to any other field except Film and TV.

            Get your facts straight or resist commenting. It doesn’t make you look very credible otherwise.

  4. Pingback: Studio Daily Blog » IATSE Seeks to Unionize VFX Industry

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  7. VFX artists have been protecting themselves for many years by deciding where they will work. A good artist can leave a crappy employer and go somewhere better. This usually teaches the crappy employer that they can’t expect to treat people poorly and continue to generate high-quality work.

    The only people who need union protection are the ones who, honestly, just aren’t very good at their job.

    In the future, potential clients will always be able to tell which VFX studios have the best artists by merit of the fact that they aren’t a union house (ie, people want to work there). So I say, bring it IATSE. Help us separate the wheat from the chaff.

    1. …And to all you young, budding artists out there, don’t forget that a union will limit your ability to earn and move up. It’s all seniority and pay scales. So it doesn’t matter if you’re ten times better than the guy sitting next to you. If he’s been there 5 years longer, he’s getting paid better and gets the best gigs.

      1. Again, this is not true. When I was a member of The Animation Guild the only thing they negotiated were wage MINIMUMS. It clearly says in their contract that there is nothing that can be used in the contract to prevent the artist from negotiating for more.

        Artists, I’m not going to sugarcoat this: This is a big decision that you have to make. If you are going to let misinformation get your attention then thats less time spent understanding the benefits.

        It is your responsibility to get the facts. Contact the IA. Talk to former members who have worked at Disney and Dreamworks.

        1. Legal wage minima already exist. Good artists already don’t have to put up with minima and can already move on to better pay and better situations. The union didn’t create this situation, demand for good artists did. This is a great motivator for artists to self-improve. Unions, on the other hand, are a good motivator for people to slack. Because their job is protected. Why should they have to work hard if the union protects them? It’s a road to an overall reduction in quality and an overall increase in cost. This will drive business away. Then we’ll all be out of work. But we’ll be in a union!!! So we’ll all be out of work together.

          Yes, the union is saying now that it won’t control your pay. That’s what it’s saying now. It’s entering with a very soft-sounding deal. That’s what it’s entering with.

          And yes, people should get all the facts. They certainly should contact people who had bad experiences at Dreamworks and Disney. And they should also be sure to talk to the vast majority who are non-union and like it that way.

          1. Unions don’t “control your pay”. They set industry minimums. The only current minimum is set by the state, $8.25 an hour. You negotiate for anything above that rate now, same as you would if were in a union (only the minimum would be much higher, plus include health and welfare contributions)

            Great artists will still move up, same as they did. Once you are in the union you are entitled to take higher level positions. If you suck, you will get laid off, the union doesn’t protect you from getting let go at the end of your weekly guarantee.

      2. As was already mentioned, you need to keep in mind that IATSE and TAG are not the Teacher’s Union which is not the United Auto Workers. Very different ballgame…

        I’ve just recently joined TAG and it is very reasonable. As opposed to the “old, big” unions, seniority, wage, and hiring decisions are not affected by TAG. They set minimums, but you still negotiate your rate with the union employer just like you would anywhere else, extra perks and all.

        The Union also doesn’t protect you from being laid off because of lack of work or you simply sucking… that wouldn’t make sense in our field (or really any industry, in my opinion).

        What they do provide though are basic protections. Stuff like being paid regularly and on time, paid overtime, vacation days and receiving proper notice when you are terminated. The health insurance is also pretty cool and way better than anything I had at non-union shops that offered it.

        The idea that a “good” artist can simply leave a crappy company sounds good in theory, but come on, that rarely happens in practice and if it does, comes with huge drama, inconvenience and a pissed off employer trying to screw you where he can.
        A lot of REALLY talented artists are extremely good at their jobs, but poor business people… and you constantly see these guys get ripped off by shops who bully many of their employees around but play favorites with the loud, less talented ones that could cause trouble.
        Case in point is my last gig at a medium-sized place doing major VFX work – work conditions were crap, payroll for freelancers was always late, overtime pay was shady, you moved up by sucking up to the owners, and people would get fired without notice or a warning. Yes, a lot of it is not exactly legal, but who can risk spending the money to sue a lawyered-up company for damages? Still, they have produced A-level work for years and continue to do so today. And unless you have your head in the sand, you know that is the case for A LOT of places in Los Angeles.

        Granted, I did fine at the place and did move on when it got too crazy (I do think I’m a decent businessman), but I’ll go out on a limb and say 8 out of 10 artists these days will sit down and shut up about some of the crazy work conditions that have arisen in the VFX world over the past years – conditions that people in other high-tech industries would laugh about. There’s still a sense of “cool” work trumping bad conditions which I believe is pretty unique to the film industry…is it because it’s still so young and you got a lot of self-taught individuals and not a whole lot of quantifiable qualification? I come from a CompSci background, so this stuff really strikes me as odd since the required level of technical expertise as e.g. a Technical Director is not at all trivial.

        Currently I work at a fantastic place… and it is fantastic because they want to make the employees happy, not at all because of the union. But with TAG, etc, we’re talking about some basic protections being extended to more shops (some of which are already in a state’s labor laws anyways). And through a union, the artists who do not have a very good sense about business and just want to do their work have an outside contact who will take care of any shady dealings against them.

        I think that’s pretty damn cool…

        1. Marcus, that does sound pretty cool.

          And your points about working conditions are well known and totally valid IMO.

          But is a union the only answer to this problem? Sound to me like a VES course on business management for artists might be just the ticket. How about a little education so that artists CAN look after themselves instead of handing over their rights to a huge union who doesn’t know them from a hole in the wall. This way, you get to learn to manage your own affairs better, AND you don’t have the overhead and liability of a union. Win-win.

    2. I respectfully disagree.

      I work for a very good company and the artist sitting next to me doesn’t have health insurance. Secondly, it’s common that vfx artists and technicians are laid off after a project is done. Many of them run out of health insurance after a month and are either forced to buy insurance on their own or pay for COBRA which can be $700-1000. Other disciplines in film are a part of unions to prevent this. I was a member of The Animation Guild an had almost over a year and half of insurance coverage after I left to a non-union company.

      On another note, many uniquely successful people are a part of unions: Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and he is the vice-president of the NFl Players Association: a union. So is Kobe Bryant, so is Alex Rodriguez. A collective bargaining agreement mandates some minimums be met before negotiations even begin. For vfx artists, its about health insurance and retirement benefits.

      1. Union people always try to make non-union work sound like hell, but it isn’t, for the most part. It’s freedom from union slugs. I pay for my family’s health insurance. It’s just a family budget item. Big deal.

        There will always be exceptions, and some places which really should be unionized because the employers are such scoundrels and the workers need protection. But this does not speak for the vast majority of employers.

        1. Health insurance being “just a family budget item” for you is all well and good. But what of the people, like myself and my wife, who have serious health issues and would have a difficult time even obtaining basic coverage were it not for coverage either provided by an employer or through a union? I am an IATSE member and the health plan is very good. Covers my very expensive medication and, at least in Los Angeles, there are several Motion Picture health clinics where doc visits and treatments can all be had for a $5 co-pay.

          Unions are not a panacea for all the problems in our industry. But how many employers provide decent health plans to VFX artists? There are hordes of people who move from job to job every few months and maintaining consistent health coverage is next to impossible.

          1. Spot on, Brad. Can’t argue with that one. People with serious illness and potentially crippling health expenses SHOULD join unions for the medical benefits.

            Many non-union places also cover health insurance as an employment benefit, although this is tough for contract employees, granted.

        2. Lor, You’ve made some great points in your arguments here (Yes I’ve read all the comments) and I completely agree we shouldn’t be diving in head first. But I have to strongly disagree with you in regards to the Health and Pension being minor benefits.

          My husband and I are both healthy but in fear of the worst my husband refuses to leave a low paying Salaried (technically not legal since he’s not management) job when he could be making much more freelancing, which in tern would help us to save for a house and so on. It is not a matter of him not being able to find work as he is a very capable artist, but for the fact that at the full time low paying salaried job we have the Security of always being covered. If I or we were to be a part of a health plan via a union he would be freelancing in a heartbeat.

          It is perhaps a somewhat catch-22 situation but quite frankly for us and I think for many artists Health and Pension are very big deciding factors.

          I also find your assumption that a union would mostly benefit those who are lacking in skills a bit of a snub on those of us who are enthusiastic about organizing. A union doesn’t get you a job, but having the option to be a part of a union can certainly help you while you’re trying or while you take a hiatus to improve your skills.

          I know a Lot of artists who work less than desirable hours with law breaking deals and no employer offered coverage. They do it because they have families to support, they do it because they’ve been promised a contact that last longer than a couple weeks, they do it because they don’t want to get trapped working on stereo conversion, they do it because they love the work they produce. Having someone to represent us isn’t a bad thing to consider.

    3. lor,

      I’m a veteren of this industry for over two decades. I have worked salaried (staff with benefits but no OT) “freelance” (in its many confusing classifications: w2 hourly, 1099, flat rate), as well as as a staffed artist at large animation studio under the 839 union contract. I can pretty much say I’ve worked as much time under 839 representation, as I did freelance negotiating on my own, and as a salaried staff with benefits and no OT (and long hours). I’m currently a freelancer. I think I’ve walked the walk. I also work very hard at doing what I do.

      Having worked at so many places and having met so many artist, I can say I’ve heard your argument before and it usually comes from a very vocal, but very very small minority. Considering how the issue of long hours, and in some cases unpaid artist have hit trade journals like variety and even mainstream like time magazine, it seems to indicate a problem.

      “The only people who need union protection are the ones who, honestly, just aren

      1. vfxlabor –

        Poignant and eloquent. I could not have said it better. Organization benefits the artist and the employers for the very reasons you stated. The IATSE wants to provide the strength of a collectively bargained contract which bring the health and pension benefits to the visual effects industry. These are the same benefits that were enjoyed by the artists and laborers that made the films the artists worked so hard to enhance. We see no reason not to extend the seamless cloak of benefits to visual effects as well and feel the effort is well deserved.

        Steve Kaplan
        Labor Organizer
        The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE
        [email protected]

  8. Until we hear what they are proposing I caution against forming opinions based on speculation, emotions, previous experience in different unions, etc. This is sure to be a highly debated issue but I think they deserve a fair chance to make their case.

    We have been in contact with IATSE (and IBEW) to ask them to sit with us for a podcast. If you have questions you’d like to see us ask please post them here or use the contact us link at top of page.


  9. Jeff, you make a good point. People should form opinions based on real experience, knowledge and history, not on hysterical rhetoric. By studying unions as an historical trend one will most likely draw the most reasonable conclusion.

    Yes the unions should be heard out. And people should also be aware that it is not a “union or the wolves” choice. There are plenty alternatives to unions that will see an artist successful and fulfilled. Maybe working conditions are so broadly horrific that unions are the only solution. But I haven’t seen that in this city. I have heard of one instance, and that was the event that started this whole process a couple of years ago.

    Pro-union people will paint a picture of equality, safety and security without mentioning any of the down-sides. Anti-union people will tell you about scale and seniority, as I have. The positive side to unions is that people who can not protect themselves individually are protected by the group, which shuts down the offending business if needed. The concept that unionization gets you free medical and retirement savings is just wrong. You pay for that with your dues. Why not just save in RRSPs of your own choice (which will probably generate more money BTW) and buy your medical for your family, like most folks?

    Imagine for yourself a VFX company in the middle of a project, and then the union striking. Any reasonable person can think through the fallout of such an action. It would not just affect the one company, it will sweep through the city. We’ll be an unpredictable place to do business.

    My position is that unionization will serve to detract business, leaving us with fewer jobs. We all know how mobile the industry is. And unions can not provide any benefits that are not otherwise available.

    Now think of it this way. The people who really need union protection are those less-skilled. When there are fewer jobs because the work has gone to New Delhi or Prague, who will be the last people hired?

    1. You don’t pay for medical and retirement with your dues. Employer contributions and residual payments pay for them. Dues pay to run the union, organizing efforts, field reps, etc.

  10. Its a tricky situation for sure. I agree with Jeff “…caution against forming opinions based on speculation, emotions, previous experience in different unions, etc. This is sure to be a highly debated issue but I think they deserve a fair chance to make their case.”
    DreamWorks and ILM (was) IATSE. Having worked for both and being in both union chapters, I can say there is a fairly large range/scope that a union’s role can be. I’m cautiously interested in seeing what they have to say & offer.

  11. Another anti-business power grab in the name of “the people”? Haven’t we seen what this has done to the automobile manufacturing industry and countless other industries that aren’t location specific? Have we not sent enough VFX jobs overseas? Do we need to make it even easier for studio executives to make that call to Singapore or Korea or India?

    Look, I did many years in the industry, and a couple of those were without insurance because I couldn’t afford COBRA. But hey, them’s the breaks. You make a choice. X costs you Y. If you’re not will to pay that price, choose a different industry. We’re all well qualified for either the housekeeping or food service industries.

    I know the effort is well-meant, but these things come at a price. Benefits don’t appear out of thin air. They’re real money that comes off of someone’s bottom line. What’s the studio going to get for the extra cost of hiring union labor? Guaranteed extra expense from paying benefits? How does that compete against India?

    So the artists get access to health insurance. Don’t they also get the possibility of being out of work because of a strike? Or facilities losing entire jobs because of the extra expense? Or just shutting down because their razor-thin margins couldn’t stand another hit?

    There’s no such thing as a free lunch, so why doesn’t someone lay out what the other side of this coin is?

    1. Blastdoor,

      Again, I’ve heard this argument before and it, again, is from a very vocal but very very small minority, usually one that has little or no experience with the IATSE’s flavor of “union”.

      I’m pro business.. in fact, i want vfx companies to organize their own trade organization so that they have a unified front when dealing with the studios… the same studios that pridefully bragged a few years back that if they haven’t run a vfx shop to the ground, they haven’t done their job.

      As an example of how the current state of affairs hurts the vfx industry, I worked at a company that has a mix of staffers and a majority of “contract” employees, myself being one of them. They operate within the CA labor laws, in fact, they hand you a sheet on your first day stipulating the 8 hour day, OT, weekend work very clearly. They have been in business for well over a decade and work on state of the art, industry leading work.

      By contrast, a company next door to them, operated quite differently while bidding on the same work/clientele. They had almost all “contract” employees, blatantly defied labor laws, having artist work at a flat rate and around the clock in many cases. In fact they initiated the whole MBO debacle, where they purposely and illegally misclassified employees to offset their own responsibilities to paying their own payroll taxes. They required all workers to join the MBO organization to do their payroll and accounting, where the artist were charged 5% of their check. So in total, the artist had 5% deducted from their paycheck, an additional ~15% deducted from their check to pay for the payroll taxes that the company was supposed to pay, not the artist. Thats on top of your usual 29-34% that you are taxed! Plus you had to wait 30 days to get paid.

      Artist were pretty much getting half their paycheck after all of the “taxes”.

      A canadian in canada pays 44% tax I think and get free healthcare while paying into the subsidies that helped guarantee that they have a job.

      What this studio did was illegally classify the employees as “freelance” when they were contract employees. When you work on a company premises, using their equipment, under their supervision, you are their employee, even if its just for a day. You are supposed to be paid every two weeks, with the company paying the payroll tax, no 5% fee for getting paid basically, and proper taxes deducted. its the Law in CA. Technically speaking, a ‘freelancer” would be working for the vfx vendor’s client on their own equipment… effectively they ARE the vfx vendor, not an employee of the vendor.

      By illegally misclassifying these employees, this vfx company had an unfair and illegal competitive edge: they effectively had employees who cost them 15-20% less (because the employees were made to pay the employers payroll tax), who worked for free after 8 hours since it was a flat rate… and since some worked 16 hour days, their labor cost was at a fraction of the cost that my legitimate employer was required by law to pay.

      This is bad for business, this isn’t business friendly.

      This devalues the work we do by allowing the company who operated illegally to underbid by potentially significant margins.

      A guild/union would help prevent this by having collective bargaining contracts and by offering a way to educate the labor force on what laws are out there to protect them.

      In fact, during this debacle, the 839 helped keep artist informed who asked for information and help.

      Regarding bottom lines, I know of a small number, not many, vfx companies that repeatedly not pay or late pay their artist while the company “reinvests” their profits in $250K supercars and in opening other businesses like restaurants, putting such efforts ahead of paying their artist on time.

      Reality is, there is a cost to doing business, and considering how inexpensive a seat is in vfx is compared to the workstation price 10 years ago, I’ve seen that profit potential squandered in poor production economy within a company, large wrap parties (prestige magnets), poor client wrangling and, yes, supercars and restaurant ventures, in some cases placed ahead of paying the labor force that has delivered in some cases pretty lofty promises working excessive hours.

      And the truth is, there are some companies that shouldn’t be in business at all.. they have no operating capital, no pipeline, and they underbid legitimate companies that have the proper infanstructure to deliver the high tech product. Many of these ill prepared companies fold before even starting on a project, but the damage is done by distorting the bid process to the client, hence the devaluing the true cost of the job.

      lately, the free lunches I’ve seen are the abuse of labor laws and the blatant non payment of artist. Some even to blockbuster features that have profited.

  12. Lor –

    As Jeff’s and your points are both valid, you’ve obviously had some bad experience with unions and I think they should be heard.

    Your main concerns of scale and seniority have been addressed in the 839 contract, as has been stated earlier. The Wages that are listed in our contract are minimums and in place to protect artists, not limit them. There is no seniority in our contract either.

    Union dues and fees do *not* go to pay for the health and pension benefits. That is a common misconception. Union dues go to pay for the liabilities of each local. The bills and salaires incurred by the daily operation of the local. Health and Pension benefits for the IATSE are funded through contractual residuals negotiated at each contract ratification and employer contributions. At no time does a member pay for their own health or pension benefits. Finally, those dues and fees are completely tax deductible and returned to the artist each April in the form of a tax rebate.

    Strikes .. another common misconception. All IATSE locals carry a No-Strike clause in their contracts. This clause states that while a contract is in place, all differences and grievances need to be handled through a defined process that includes arbitration by a third neutral party. Therefore, the IATSE is contractually obligated NOT to strike.

    As Jeff pointed out, we all are anxiously awaiting more public announcements from the IATSE regarding their plans. Many questions are going to be levied and getting those questions to Jeff is extremely important. In the meantime, addressing some of the anti-union misconceptions that you and others have would be my pleasure.

    Steve Kaplan
    Labor Organizer
    The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE
    [email protected]

  13. Steve, thanks for the clarification.

    So union dues do not come back to the artist in the form of benefits. They go to pay for the union bureaucracy. That’s much better. The union forces the employer to pay the benefits who must then raise prices to pay for them. Better still. (sorry for the sarcasm, I just can’t help shaking my head)

    No strikes? Fair enough, that makes sense and necessarily addresses, somewhat, the mobility of the industry. Good on you for that. So where’s the union benefit? Getting a third party to arbitrate? That sounds pretty good.

    Just a minute, isn’t there already an employment standards branch for that?

    Dues are tax deductible and returned to the artist each April? Actually the artist gets some, not all, of his tax money back based on dues paid. The union does not return it, the government just doesn’t tax you on it. The union still keeps all the money. Interesting spin there, Steve.

    So summing up, I get to pay dues for which I receive no benefit, except services (arbitration, medical, RRSP) which are also available elsewhere if I don’t pay dues. Plus, VFX will be more expensive here, causing more business to go elsewhere. Or the studios will keep everyone at the minimum to pay for the benefits. The money’s gotta come from somewhere.

    I’ll weigh that carefully, thanks for sorting me out.

    Out of curiosity, under IATSE, what’s a normal work day before overtime rates kick in? And what are the OT rates?

    1. One more small point that I missed initially.

      “Strikes .. another common misconception. All IATSE locals carry a No-Strike clause in their contracts. This clause states that while a contract is in place, all differences and grievances need to be handled through a defined process that includes arbitration by a third neutral party. Therefore, the IATSE is contractually obligated NOT to strike.”

      So if the contract expires, which they often do, the union is in a position to strike. So regardless of the No Strike clause, strikes are still a potential. Please feel free to correct this, if misinterpreted.

      1. You are correct in stating that. However, to say that a strike will happen each time a contract is up is an alarmist statement that is meant to frighten and confuse people. Again, nice spin.

        Most contracts when they expire are renegotiated by both parties. Take for example, the SAG/AFTRA and AMPTP contracts that were just renegotiated. Both sides had items they wanted to address and the talks went smoothly. However, there are certainly cases where a union will strike after a contract is up and they are trying to achieve something for their membership.

        Another misconception is that the union controls when and how strikes take place. Strikes have to be voted on and approved by the membership before they can take place. Strikes are also the last resort when it comes to negotiating. They are the nuclear weapon of labor action. Nobody wants a strike because of the damage a strike causes to both sides.

        1. Hello Steve,

          I think it’s unfair for you to suggest what my intentions are. I do think it is fair for people to be aware of ALL the facts and potentials, and to make up their own minds. Your statement was made such that, without careful reading, strikes seem impossible, when they are not. Talk about spin.

          Even with a strike vote, there are many people who will not want to strike, and will vote against it. If the vote goes through, they’re just outta luck, I guess. How do they pay their mortgage and feed their kids now? Really? Worrying about feeding my kids is alarmist and confusing?

          Again, my position is that unionization does not bring significant enough benefits, but does bring significant liabilities with it.

        2. Strikes are the nuclear option, yet major strikes happened in Hollywood not once but twice in less than ten years, causing disruptions and shifts in the industry that are still being felt today.

        3. Hello again, Steve,

          I actually take issue with your suggestion that I am trying to “spin” anything. I mean, it’s fair enough for you to try, since I pointed out the obvious spins in your rhetoric, and you’d like to deflect the accusation back to me, but honestly. Let’s be really clear on who is debating here.

          On one side, you have Steve Kaplan, representing an enormous and powerful entity whose primary aim is to secure as much power as possible by recruiting as many members as possible. This not only gives them greater power at the bargaining table, but also fattens the coffers quite nicely. But that’s not important, because we never get to see any of that money.

          On the other side you have me. An artist trying to have a successful career uninterrupted by things like job actions and my company closing, both of which are real potential outcomes of a union.

          So it’s not like we’re two political parties trying to duke it out.
          -IATSE has a political agenda.
          -Me, I just want to keep getting paid (and not get bossed around by absurd union rules, by the way).

          Nobody except Steve said “a strike will happen each time a contract is up”. Taking a simple statement like “strikes are still a potential” and ramping it up into that kind of freakish extreme…well if that ain’t deliberate spin, I don’t know what is.

          Naturally the union will make it sound as sugar-coated as they can. Listen to them, but be critical. Don’t just accept them at their word, DO look into it. Deeply. Because they DO have a political agenda. And once you cross that line, it’s all done.

    2. The thanks are yours Lor. Your concerns are not new and have been brought to me many times. I’m glad to talk about them again.

      Dues – you are correct. The Dues and fees charged by the locals go to pay for their upkeep. Bureaucracy? Considering your anti-union slant, I can forgive the use of a negatively connotative word. Dues and fees are completely tax refundable. The tax refund an artist gets back in April isn’t something we control. Receiving the tax credit on the dues payments is a federal statue. Stating that the membership with a union (regardless of the dues) doesn’t bring benefits with it, is the spin.

      And, you are also correct when you state that when an organization signs a contract with the union, there are extra costs involved. Employers do make contributions to the Health and Pension fund which helps bring zero-cost coverage to the artists and members who work at the facility. These costs are generally equal to, if not lower than, the costs the facilities are currently paying to offer health care to their employees. So, a strong argument can be made that signing a contract with the IATSE could be a cost benefit.

      The arbitration clause is not a given as the contract stipulates its use. If either party is in violation of the agreement, the other party has the right to file a grievance and follow a prescribed set of steps to resolve the matter. The contractual grievance procedure including arbitration is in place to keep drastic and costly matters such as strikes from happening.

      RRSP, employment standards branch .. are you working in California from Canada? Just out of curiosity. The use of arbitration is not a given and in our industry not a common practice in the least. Neither is an artist having medical coverage. In the US, unlike Canada, health care is not publicly funded and most artists exist without medical insurance. An IATSE contract not only stipulates wage and workplace condition minimums, but membership and employment at signatory facilities brings zero-cost to the member health and pension benefits that are not publicly available.

      Steve Kaplan
      Labor Organizer
      The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE
      [email protected]

      1. Respectfully, there’s no such thing as zero-cost health care, unless suddenly doctors and hospitals started operating entirely for free.

        And if a facility isn’t paying for any health benefits now, payments into a Health and Pension fund would be a brand new, not-insignificant cost.

        1. I believe you misunderstood my point. I stated “zero-cost to the member”. IATSE members do not contribute money for their health coverage. There are co-payments and the like involved with our health plans, so your point is still valid and I stand corrected.

          If a visual effects facility is not offering health coverage for their artist employees, the extra cost of health and pension benefits would be a consideration for them. We understand and respect that the profit margins for the effects facilities are small.

          1. So with profit margins small, what is a facility supposed to do if they couldn’t afford the fees? Opt to be a non-union shop? Or just shut down?

            Would union members be allowed to work at non-union shops when there are no other employment options?

      2. Steve says:
        “These costs are generally equal to, if not lower than, the costs the facilities are currently paying to offer health care to their employees. So, a strong argument can be made that signing a contract with the IATSE could be a cost benefit.”

        “Generally equal to, if not lower than” In other words, most of the time equally as expensive. Sometimes more expensive, sometimes less expensive, but on average about the same. A “strong argument”? Not really. An argument at all? Maybe if you show me the numbers.

        So unionization “could” be a benefit in this way. Unfortunately in this world, major moves like this MUST be a benefit.

  14. I am looking forward to hear a healthy discussion in the upcoming podcast and I am glad that multiple organizations came to realize that our industry with all its quirks has become mature enough to merit a more unified representation.


    Hey lor, although your arguments are valid and need to be explored even more, allow me to hopefully offer some other angles to your fears.

    The fear that any US VFX work would be outsourced even more if artists here would organize would very likely be true. However if they would not organise,
    then outsourcing would still happen anyway at an ever growing pace.

    We have heard time and time again from the studio perspective that a majority of current VFX work is considered a collection of commodities, so therefore sound business strategy dictates that such work is best handled in a low wage, factory, bottom line pricing way.

    Do not forget that most current studios are not even owned by traditional creative entities anymore, but are part of large global companies where the actual studio is merely a chapter that has to abide by the same, take no prisoners, ever growing profit margin goals.

    Although there is nothing wrong with this and is in fact part of the fabric of our economy, this is a huge shift in how entertainment studios get handed the tools to make sure US vfx workers get treated properly.

    I would go even so far as saying that there might be many executives or vfx company decision makers that want to keep the work here, but are not allowed to.

    So in short, whether you like it or not, the work will be going away if we do not act in one voice.

    I think it is clear that a lot of workers have paused on this for a while now and feel that our industry is not merely a collection of commodities, but a high skilled every changing and complex entity that is not getting its fair share of the profits it tends to generate.

    I have a slight suspicion that IATSE, 839 and similar organizations have made the same conclusion and have a genuine passion to get our workforce the stability it so desperately needs.

    To your point of representation being a vehicle to protect less skilled artists or to make it harder for negotiating your own salary is simply not true.

    Whether a job is union or non union, you tend to find equal amount of politics vs realities and equal amounts of elbowing vs head bowing.

    This is the part where the VES goals can come in, by defining and legitimizing titles, positions, credits. So a non skilled worker or an ‘all talk no action’ type of worker would not be able to attain the certification set forth by the VES but would on the flip side make sure that true skilled workers get recognized. Think of it as a diploma or label of authenticity.

    Let me conclude by saying that of course no system is fail safe and even the best intentions to some can actually hurt others, but doing nothing and let it the US vfx industry go down in flames is not a course I want to see happen without at least having attempted to stabilize in however small amounts I can.

    Thanks for reading,

    1. DannyB, I appreciate your open and heartfelt remarks. However your facts do not add up to your own conclusions. Let me explain.

      Big business wants cheaper VFX so they outsource to foreign interests. This will continue at an ever growing pace. The statement “So in short, whether you like it or not, the work will be going away if we do not act in one voice.” should more aptly read “The work will be going away whether or not we act in one voice” based on this statement of facts. Do we really believe that unionizing (in short making VFX more expensive here) will force a studio producer to keep work here? And if he doesn’t, what are we gonna do about it. Strike? I can already hear producers laughing.

      Also, not joining a union does not mean we are doing nothing. And yes, doing nothing is better than doing something that is worse. We need to move strategically and each make an informed decision, not react emotionally and just do “something” hoping it will improve matters.

      The only way to make unionization really viable is to unionize all VFX in the world. By then my grandchildren will be dead.

      The internet is the global equalizer.

      1. Hey Lor,

        Point well taken and perhaps my naivety is overtaking common sense at times.

        I would probable not still be in this industry if my passion wasn’t bigger then my economics.

        I do think that just as many artists adopt to an ever shrinking world, so will unions.

        I can imagine a model where an organization, union based or not, would represent a huge amount of VFX artists from all over the world.

        If that would ever happen, hopefully before your grandchildren s demise, one cannot argue that we would get a seat at the cake and pie table.

        There always has to be start, regardless how futile it looks, to achieve big things.

        And if this was only a US problem, then we would not have seen such big numbers echoing the same things from artists in the UK, CAN, NZ etc.

        If I am not mistaken I recall more non US folks to be listening in to the town hall meetings.

        I truly believe our industry will evolve into a non brick and mortar model anyway, but that doesn’t mean we should not want to have a unified voice to represent our fair wishes, regardless of the fact that some us us might be working from a cloud connected basement in mystery country X.

        Of course I share your comment that we need to move strategically and make informed decisions, hence why I stated to be looking forward to the upcoming podcast and the many more discussions that will ensue.

        1. DannyB, I can not disagree on any point.

          Passion drives us when we start out. Economic factors come later, with the birth of the first child. The passion never leaves, hopefully, but the children win out every time.

          Unions were conceived to protect individuals from bad management, not to protect industries from the legal business option of taking business elsewhere if the price is better.

          Back to the topic, I still have not heard a “real” benefit to unionization. I find it a little disconcerting that direct questions about hours, overtime and union artists working at non-union houses seem to have been ignored.

          The potential exists for unions to become relevant to our industry, but it will take more than rhetoric and spin, which sums up most of Mr Kaplan’s defense so far. Too much liability, not enough benefit.

          1. The real benefits are pretty relative to how bad your current employer is.
            I’ve basically worked at a sweat shop in my last gig, only that it was in “beautiful” Santa Monica… so the benefits to unionizing there would be measurable.

            In terms of the actual work, TAG offers nothing outrageously awesome, but a common-sense base that is pretty close to California Labor Law anyways… only that it actually gets enforced.

            This hasn’t affected me in a while, but as far as I understand, you won’t have to deal with the BS of being categorized and treated as a freelancer when you really are an employee by all accounts of the law. The union contract also explicitly restates break and meal period rules, so an employer can’t give you grief for actually taking them and not working through those.

            As for the more tangible numbers –
            >8 hours a day is 1 1/2 times
            >14 is double time
            6th day of the week is 1 1/2 if you worked more than 40 hours during the week
            7th day is double time
            There’s a 4 hour minimum call time each day

            You are free to work anywhere you want, union or not. If you return to a union shop, your benefits are supposed to continue seamlessly afaik.

            The contract also includes minimum vacation (2 weeks I think) and sick time.
            It’s a surprisingly short and simple to read document… it’s linked somewhere on the TAG website.

            To me, this union contract just seems to cover some VERY basic points – but then again I am not from the US and 2 weeks vacation still seems barbaric to me 😉

          2. Lor –

            What would be “enough” benefit for you to believe organization and a collectively bargained contract would be beneficial? You claim not to be spinning or debating, yet I am stating facts while you rely on hyperbole and hypothetical. But, for the sake of explanation, I’ll answer your questions. You should also feel free to go to our website and save a copy of our contract for yourself. Since hyperlinks seem to send comments into Spam-Trash, email me and I will send you a copy.

            Hours: OT applications and rates follow the California State guidelines. Since Local 839 is jurisdictionally bound to Los Angeles, we differ to the state labor laws and reinforce the 8 hour day per day and/or 40 hour per week. Are you familiar with the california state labor hours? For your edification, after 8 hours a day and/or 40 hours a week .. the next 4 hours is 1.5 times hourly and any time after 4 hours is 2 times hourly.

            Artists at non-union facilities: We have never had an issue with our artists working at non-signatory facilities. In fact, we offer Honorable Withdrawal to members who are working at such places. This gives the member an option of not paying their dues while not working under a union contract.

          3. Oh, I’m debating, Steve. But I don’t believe I’m spinning.

            Answering your question what would be “enough” benefit: Simply enough to offset the potential risks of job action or my company closing down due to lost business in an unfriendly environment, squeezed between producers and unions. Actually that just makes it even. After that, I’d need to see something positive, like I’m guaranteed to get paid more than I am now, or I’m guaranteed not to be forced to work over the weekend if I don’t want to. Show me that and I’ll sign. Much of what you propose, and much of what I have heard today, would make sense five years ago. I just don’t see it today in a world where so many jobs have flown across the ocean at the speed of the internet.

    1. Lor –

      I tried earlier, but that comment is lost in moderation. Go to our website (please excuse the 1990s style .. we’re redesigning it and will release the new one shortly), get through the first page by clicking Enter, click the Contracts tab and the link will be there.

      Steve Kaplan
      Labor Organizer
      The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE
      [email protected]

          1. Jeff,

            If you can look for my first post, it may have set off the spam filter since it had a link to the VES. Thanks!

      1. That’s a little presumptuous, VFX Soldier. I’ve seen drafts and proposals over the last couple of years, but not final documents, no.

        1. Today I had a conversation with an artist who surprisingly was looking to the future not the past. He was looking to his future, his career working in the vfx industry. It was simple for him, he wants to be paid for all hours worked, he wants to have a family and be able to provide health benefits for them, and he wants to retire in dignity. A simple request for giving his best to the industry he wants to work 20 plus years in. Currently that industry does not provide him with a plan for him to retire in dignity after working all those years, dental for his children, retiree health benefits. He sees union workers with these benefits. Its a no brainer for him.

  15. I’ll remain open-minded about the union, but my gut tells me to be very cautious about it. I recognize that the VFX industry is broken in terms of compensation and work hours, but the problem seems to be clearly with what the studios pay and how lop-sided their leverage is, not with bad facility owners. By and large, facility owners seem to want to treat their artists as generously as possible and know they need to compete for the best artists, but the studios make it VERY hard to even cover the basics. This is why unionizing is maybe the right move but at the wrong time. We need a trade association to protect the vfx vendors first, so that there actually is some money and room for accommodations to be had. If the facilities can be paid fairly and consistently, then those benefits will trickle down to the artists. If not, THEN a union starts having more obvious value to me.

    If IATSE wants to really make things better for artists, then I suggest they go after the studios. I don’t know much about the union politics, but I can only imagine some sort of play where they use the leverage of the existing unionized labor (the crew and actors) to make the studios agree to concessions on the VFX/post side that trickle through the facilities and down to the artists. But I don’t believe that those groups – who historically under respect “the post people” as inferiors to production people – are going to take any risk to try to help us.

    And that is what this really comes down to, is a cultural problem in our industry. Post-production is looked at with little respect, while production is glamorized. You’re more likely to hear a thank you in an Oscar speech for the hairstylist than the VFX Supervisor, even though who do you think was more valuable to the film? VFX are the bankable stars of todays movies and yet they don’t get their own trailer, pay days, points or residuals. This mindset goes all the way to the top where the studio suits view us as a commodity to be exploited. The problem with unionizing if done the classic way is it assumes that the facility owners are “them” and not “us”, and I think they are “us”. They are getting sh*t on by the studio producers along with the rest of us.

    We need to figure out away to band together with facility owners to exact our worth from the content owners. That’s the bottom line.

    Sorry for rambling.

      1. Hey Tyler,

        I share your sentiment and that was maybe not clear in my previous posts, any organisation that would like to unify us should definately be based on the understanding that the issues at hand do hardly lay with the different vfx houses vs vfx workers but are foremost a sympton of the lobsided insanity involved by the process of how jobs are awarded in the first place these days.

        I would even argue that many artists would be walking side by side with thier employer, as aside from some rare cases, they are under the same faster clicking guns.

        I would be suprised if IATSE or similar would be thinking otherwise.

  16. I remember a lot of this discussion from a long time ago, when digital technology was first ramping up in the film industry.

    A lot of young artists who wee entering the industry were very opposed to becoming organized. They argued that (A), free market forces would take care of problems like health and retirement benefits, and (B), if effects artists were seen as union members (like animators and optical camerapersons), we wouldn’t get the respect we deserved as creative members of the production team. These seemed like attractive arguments at the time, so the organization drive fizzled out.

    Twenty years later, we’re still waiting.

  17. I’ve seen the numbers and the costs associated to small businesses in order to become a union signatory. If unions succeed you will see a number of smaller boutique shops close. You’ll see people who don’t understand the technical diversity of the vfx field try to classify jobs into supposedly “organized” job descriptions. This will in turn handicap those who see themselves as generalist freelancers and restrict your ability to manage your own career path. You’ll see union rosters form and studios will cherry pick artists off the rosters to work on specific shows. This will in turn destroy cohesive smaller independent companies because there will be no desire from the larger entities to negotiate with them. Why would they want to? They’ll just go to the union roster and pick who they want. This will be good for some and bad for others. Any concept of a perpetual cohesive team will vanish. As a result you’ll see a divide form between those who get the jobs and those who won’t. Small companies will be caught in the crossfire, and ultimately have to raise their rates to pay the union in order to work on union jobs and pay union employees. Everything will cost more and who gets the money? The unions.

    Artists… are you ready to give up your rights to choose your own fate? Control your own business? Are you ready to pay huge dues every year? Do you want to be dictated to as to what you can and can’t work on? Are you prepared to be classified into a job description by someone who really doesn’t get what you do?

    I’m independent contractor and I have great health care. I have my own benefits. I’m doing just fine. I set my own rates. I can be competitive and I don’t need the unions.

    Introducing unions into the VFX industry will generate a massive intrusion into a system that’s is working. If anything, more needs to be done to show artists that they don’t need “mommy” and “daddy” union people telling them how to run their business. I pay my artists fairly. I take care of them and if I ever want to expand my business to provide them with health care I’ll do that because I know that my privatized choice of health care will be as good as the unions and cost less.

    Unionization is not the answer. More education and self sufficiency is.

    1. Oh.. and as for paying overtime…I make sure anyone who works for me, whether W2 or 1099 gets their overtime.

      Creating a union to make sure artists aren’t “abused” is just another way to create a vfx nanny state. Businesses who do comply and work hard to make sure their looking after their employees and sub-contractors are the ones who will feel the effects of unionization first. They’ll be the first to close down if they can’t carry the union burden.

  18. VFX definitely needs a watchdog to help control conditions and costs for everyone. If a union can bring some security to the VFX workforce (in terms of medical coverage and retirement plans) – currently i have no safety net, then I’m all for it.

    If IATSE or a governing body can enforce minimum wages per disciplines along with hours and hand out penalties to companies that continue to violate the rules it will help identify the good shops vs. the bad ones. This information can then be publicized and people can make there own educated decisions based on the data (the numbers won’t lie – if companies continue to get penalized – they clearly don’t know how to manage the internal resources or can’t control the client from making changes, or failed to bid a job correctly based on the staff/pipeline they have).

    I’m a vancouver artist and vancouver has experienced rapid growth in the past 2 years with big studios moving north, ie: DD, Sony Imageworks, MPC, Pixar. It seems they all come up here for the credits, not the talent. – which tells me that its about the bottom line.

  19. OK so Jeff asked for questions to be asked, and many have been implied already in the debate above. I’m writing some down here just to gather them, and maybe others can add ones I haven’t caught. Regardless of your feelings on unionization, everyone should not miss the opportunity to ask these questions:

    1 – How are you going to help VFX facilities to increase profitability in their contracts with studios so that they can afford to give more benefits and compensation to the artists?

    2 – How will you make improvements while preventing an increase in job flight to cheaper markets (i.e. India)?

    3 – Will the union have any interference at all in what artists get the opportunity to do a particular job, based on seniority or any other criteria? Will both artists and facilities be able to pick the right person for the right job based purely on artistic/skill merit, as they do now, rather than any arbitrary union rules?

    4 – How much will it cost to be a member as an artist?

    5 – How much will it cost facilities, and what other potentially hidden costs are there?

    6 – Will artists and facilities be able to stay out of the union if they want to? What repercussions will there be if they do?

    7 – Can facilities mix union and non-union artists?

    8 – What concrete benefits will be offered to employers for signing with the union?

    9 – Where does all the money go? How is it accounted for? How transparent and auditable is this by members?

    10 – What exactly are the health plans available and how much will they cost?

    11 – How will the union be lead, what involvement do both artists and facilities have with making sure the leadership is educated, with the times, and taking things in sensible directions?

    12 – How else will facilities be involved with the union to make this a cooperative effort and not a antagonistic one between artists and facilities? How will good facilities that are already doing solid by their artists be rewarded?

    13 – What about facilities that already have health benefits which may be better than the unions? Will they be given lower fees to recognize these costs, or will the union usurp their benefits and force the unions in their place?

    1. I go over many of the costs and benefits associated with unionization for vfx artists on my site. I use IA Local 839 as my example.

  20. John Lance Harrison

    Finally! Long over-due!
    John ‘ Lance ‘ Harrison
    Licensed Pyrotechnician I.A.T.S.E. Local ONE (NYC Bway show division)

  21. Scott Squire’s blog post is an interesting read, but not exactly balanced. It talks about benefits of the Union and the mythology of non-believers, but doesn’t mention one single disadvantage to unionizing. I guess there aren’t any, then.

    1. That’s not how I read it. I saw many benefits described. And it is actually very balanced. (He does make some digs at the state of health care in this country… but he is right on the money. If you’ve ever had to actually deal with it, you would know.)

      People should read just read Scott’s post themselves. It’s very comprehensive.

  22. I’ll just pop in to say two things…

    1) Thanks again to FXGuide and Jeff for covering this issue and giving people a place to discuss…

    2) The politics of this are very tricky all the way around, and I mean the interpersonal politics. My personal experiences was that when my HuffPost story and the VFX Town Hall happened I was kind of shocked by the hornet’s nest I’d stepped into and strong reaction I saw. The positive stuff was fairly public and obviously appreciated but boy, the negative stuff mostly knives out from people behind the scenes.It was kind of not fun, really. So knowing that terrain the little bit that I do, I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens. (Ancient Chinse curse — “May you live in interesting times.”)

  23. I just hope it doesn’t come down to the kind of convoluted joining process they have with the other IATSE unions. I remember being in film school on the East Coast virtually begging member to vouch for me and he wouldn’t, but he was virtually begging this other kid in the class to join. I guess he thought the kid was a wunderkund or something because he’d gone to Cali ($$$) and gotten an internship. The union worker didn’t know either of us outside of one conversation that was had before and after a class that he ended up dropping after two classes.

    If that’s the way it works it basically means sexist and possibly racist, possibly ageist practices in expanding union membership could be extremely prevalent and that would be more harmful than helpful.

  24. I’ve been a freelancer for over 10 years. I will never join a union. I will leave the business before a union gets one dime from me. Look at any industy that has unions and see how well they’re doing. Union pensions are destroying the state of california and the auto industy among others. Look at the school system. Look at the government. I want no part of that.

    Can we really expect vfx companies that are barely treading water to pay for all these benefits? I doubt many will be able to. They’ll either end up getting rid of people, moving out of state or out of the country, or folding. Either way your new benefits aren’t going to matter at all when you don’t have a job anymore.

    All artists need to do is stand up for themselves. You don’t like your pay or the way you’re being treated, move on. If you demand respect from a company going in, you’ll usually get it. If you let a company walk all over you, they usually will. If you’re good at what you do, you’ll never have a hard time finding a job. Even in these tough times. People who are truely good at what they do will ALWAYS find work.

    I would bet that every artist I’ve ever heard whine and cry about the hours they work and the benefits they don’t get would shut up real quick if they realized for the vfx industy to get these benefits they would lose their job.

    What everyone should be more concerned about is the amount of work leaving california. I have yet to hear any union or the VES talk about how they’re going to fix that. That needs to come first. Then you can talk about putting extra burden on vfx companies. Its sad when the VES takes money from its LA members to support Canadian companies coming to LA to pitch their work to studios.

    You people need to wake up. Once the jobs are gone your great union benfits aren’t going to mean jack.

    If any oranizing needs to be done, its to start waking up the politicians in Sacramento to get us some tax incentives that will make us competitive with other countries and other states.

    Someone mentioned that production in california is down 70%. Have unions stepped up to do anything about that? If they have, I haven’t noticed.

    Steven: Do you have any great plans to help keep jobs in California? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. What do you think the extra burden you’re going to be putting on vfx companies is going to do to the job market here in California?


    1. @Mike

      Your message seems a little confused. On the one hand, you are arguing for a free market “No Unions”, because they drive up costs and screw everything up (or something like that?), on the other hand, you want a unions to somehow force private companies to make movies, specifically in California. Which is it? Free market or intervention?

      I think you misunderstand the primary function of a Union for the employees organized under it. Their main job is making sure you get treated fairly (meaning you get paid and not screwed over) and that you have benefits that aren’t tied to a particular employer. As a freelancer, you should appreciate that more than most people.

      Also, trade Unions like IATSE are an entirely different thing from the Public Service Unions like the teacher, fire and police unions that are messing up California. The Public Service Unions have an incredible amount of sway in the state legislative process that entertainment unions don’t have. They get their benefits through the very legislation they influence. That’s unlikely to happen for an entertainment union. Though, it seems like that’s actually what you want. Am I right? I mean, you WANT the union to get legislation made to force production to be done in CA, right? (Which is it? Free market or intervention? I’m still not clear on what you actually want.) The interesting thing about the entertainment unions is they split the difference really equitably. At least in Local 839, the rates we get paid tend to be well above the minimums set by the Union anyway, so the free market is clearly driving rates, not the Union. Plus we get OT, reasonable minimums and turn-arounds, etc. Employers can’t get away with yanking people around. I tend to think of it more as having my own staff labor lawyer and portable benefits than anything else.

      For those temped to believe the FUD aspects of Mikes post…

      If it were true Unions kill the industry, why are Nick, Disney and Dreamworks Animation still in business? When Disney shut down all the satellite studios, they kept the main studio in Burbank, which is Union. (You would think “consolidation” would have been a perfect excuse for them to finally rid themselves of the Union if it was so heinous. But the ONE animation studio they kept was the Union studio in Burbank.) Dreamworks has PDI, a non-union facility in NoCal they could have easily consolidated the CGI business to years ago, yet they still keep the Union facility in Glendale open.

      Outsourcing is an entirely separate issue related to the price of labor and government incentives. You realize, Canada has entertainment Unions too, right?

      My point is, it’s not the entertainment Unions that are driving work “out” of CA, it’s the incentives in Canada that are drawing the work IN for them.

      One last thing I would like to ask is: Why would you lament the loss of a studio that is screwing over its employees to stay in business? The difference between union and non-union would be nothing for the studios that treat employees right. As some have said, it might even be cheaper for them in many cases. It’s only the studios that treat employees wrong in the first place that will suffer. But they are typically already breaking state labor laws or at least heavily gaming them. Making them do the right thing is just shining a light on their mis-deeds.

      1. Lord,

        I never suggested private companies should be forced to make movies here in California. What needs to happen though is companies in California need to be more competitive. Unions are not going to have that effect.

        The union WILL be driving the work “out” of California by the mere fact that they’re going to raise the cost of doing business. If unions really want to be helpful, they should first be concerned about keeping the jobs here and helping to bring back lost jobs. Once they do that and more money and work are flowing into the vfx companies, then you can go after getting better benefits.

        Please explain to me how having a union would make it cheaper for companies operate?

        I’m not sure what you think the profit margins are for vfx companies but I will tell you a lot of them will be in a really bad position if they’re forced to add employee benefits.

        you mentioned Nick, Disney and Dreamworks as being successfull union shops. I will bet you money that those very places are actively seeking to send more of that work overseas. Why keep it here if you can make more by sending it elsewhere.

        To answer your question of why I would lament the loss of a studio thats screwing over their employees, lets first clarify employees getting screwed over. If a company is breaking the law, no I would not lament their loss. There is a simple way for an employee to deal with that though. All a artist needs to do is go to the California Labor Board. They come down extremely hard on companies breaking the law. I’ve seen it happen. You don’t need any union to do that. If an employee is being asked to work long hours and they aren’t getting paid for it, either refuse the hours or walk out. I’ve been in situations where my employeer has been out of hand and I’ve walked out on the job. Only to go back to it with a nice pay increase. Artists have a surprising amount of power in their hands. All they need to do is exercise it. I will say I have seen many many cases of artists complaing about working long hours and being treated poorly by their producers. But I’ve watched these artists work and they spend half their day talking to the guy next to them taking 12 hours to do what other people do in 4.

        It isn’t always the fault of the vfx company that they’re in a position where its tough to pay their people. VFX companies get screwed by their clients all the time. Clients won’t pay on time, try to change the deal, production and editorial companies that are paying the vfx companies go out of business. There’s a lot more going on than these big bad vfx companies trying to screw over those same people that make it work.

        As a freelancer I do appreciate the benefits I have. Which I provide to myself. I don’t want nor do I need a union to provide those for me. Nor do I need a union to get a producer to say please and thank you to me. I get companies to respect me on my own. Fortunately my parents taught me to demand respect from people when I was growing up.

        I’m still looking forward to hearing Steve’s answers to my questions.


        1. Good points. I too have refused to work for free. It was a non-union sweatshop that expected it, and they clearly knew better than to push the issue. But as an artist (and not as good a business man as you seem to be) I wouldn’t have been so clear about the rules had I not been exposed to them through the union newsletters over the years. My co-workers on that job didn’t seem to understand it however, even though I told them straight out it was California labor law. Amazingly few people seem as well versed in labor law as you.

          If everyone stood up for themselves like you and I, wouldn’t that also make the VFX industry less competitive? Do people not stand up for themselves because they are worried about the entire industry leaving the state or because they just don’t know any better?

          You can see Steven Kaplan’s post regarding the concerns of industry-wide price increases due to benefits.

          It’s probably not the rainbows and unicorns response some people want to hear, but it’s an honest assessment.

          But since when was it our job to think strategically for the entire VFX industry as a whole? Run-away production is a complex issue and our choice to be in a union isn’t going to be some magical last-straw that kills the industry. Don’t you see they are gaming us with the THREAT of outsourcing as much as the reality of it?

          To answer your question, Nick, Disney and Dreamworks HAVE been outsourcing for years. They have yet to shut down the domestic wings. And they still do their class A projects in the domestic studios. DWA is practically busting at the seams they are so busy. Things in the union animation universe are arguably better than they’ve been in a long time. Clearly the union isn’t the primary driving factor in the out-sourcing issue. Not even remotely.

          VFX is different from the world of CG features. I agree, it isn’t always the fault of VFX studios we get yanked around. But I’m not going to form some sort of Stockholm Syndrome over it. I don’t care if a bully is beating me up because there is a bigger bully beating him up. I’m still getting beat up. The buck has to stop somewhere.

          The client studios already understand unions are just another part of doing business. They already interact with unions on the live action side. I doubt VFX going union would make them suddenly start hating unions so much it causes the industry to implode.

  25. It’s good to see that Union pundits are here defending the union. That’s precisely where the union should be…defending itself.

    1. Lor,

      I’d say people aren’t “defending” the union so much as straitening out all the mis-information and innuendo a few have been posting. Someone says something patently incorrect or highly misleading and someone corrects them. That’s all that’s been going on.

      The way I read the room, it’s more a “wait and see” attitude. There are only a few people interested in sniping in saying misleading things.

      So yeah, you are right. It’s good to see there are people here (like myself) who actually have first-hand experience as union members AND as non-union VFX artists that are willing to take the time to correct the mis-information.

      TAG (Local 839) is a good place to see a working model of an IATSE union in black and white. Nowadays, their largest signatories do almost exactly the same type of work we do in VFX.

      None of the information of how TAG operates is secret. No one is trying to hide anything. Heck, they even publish an annual wage survey. (A good way to see how the actual wages paid compare with the contract minimums) If you have questions, go check out the web site or ask a rep. Better yet, go to a TAG meeting (boring as heck, but totally transparent) I imagine a VFX union would be similar, but it could be very different.

      It remains to be seen how IATSE intends to organize VFX compared to animation. That is the most that can really be said at this point.

      I’ll be totally honest, I am a fan of TAG. I also gotta say, if the proposed VFX union sucks by comparison I wont be interested. Let’s see what it is before we start dissing it, OK? No need to be ratcheting up the FUD so early. Once they announce details we can start judging its value to us based on facts. FUD, innuendo and mis-information isn’t useful to anyone.

  26. We’re being told that there will be great changes for us with the benefits and standards unions will enforce. Then, as soon as the competitive and economic realities are brought up, we’re told not to worry because unions aren’t really changing anything enough to effect these issues. Which is it?

    Also, so far with every question about these macro issues of global competition and the studio’s disproportionate leverage in deal-making, we either hear no response from the pro-union or else they side-step the issue by disclaiming any responsibility for addressing those issues. But these are the fundamental elephant-in-the-room issues of our industry at this time. I’m looking forward to hearing something more articulate about this in the podcasts hopefully. So far I feel like the union leaders have no clue what to say to this, and just hope we’ll stop asking about it if they say “that’s not our problem.”

    BTW, if portable benefits are the issue, it’s easy for an individual artist to set themselves up as a company and join the NASE (National Association for the Self Employed) to get group health insurance. I did this for a few years and was happy with the medical for my family and I, and got much better rates with protection from huge hikes and being dropped. There are other organizations that can get you good group health too, even Costco membership features plans like this. If portable medical benefits are the “killer feature” of the union, I feel there’s already existing solutions like NASE, Costco, and others for this that people just aren’t aware of or taking advantage of.

  27. Good evening Mike,

    I apologize for my tardy response. I hope you weren’t left waiting for too long. A good deal of your comments and arguments have been addressed by LordTanget. I will answer the question you posed of me.

    * Do I have plans on how to keep jobs in California?
    No. It is not upon the unions to do that. We are in place to keep the artists and workers in the industry protected from rampant abuse at the hands of those attempting to increase and stretch their profits over the backs of the people toiling to get the job done. As a freelancer, and a strong willed and venerable one, I’m sure you understand what I mean.

    Would I like to see jobs corralled in California? Absolutely. Do I think its going to happen? No. Will organizing open the flood gates on jobs leaving? Not in my opinion.

    * What do I think the extra burden you

    1. Thanks for getting back to me Steve.

      From reading your message it seems to me that you’re not really living in the real world that many of us are.

      You believe the extra costs will be passed on??? You’re damn right they will. The vfx companies with unions and the higher health and pension costs will definitely be passing that cost on to their clients. However that cost will never get farther than a bid. Because of those extra costs they won’t be getting jobs. I think we can all agree that these days agency and studio producers are pinching every penny they can. They’re certainly already willing to go outside of the state to do work now, when costs increase it will only incentivise them even more to go else where. But if on the other hand you know some producers that are happy to award jobs to high bids please let me know who they are. I’d love to meet them.

      You say that the union is here to protect artist from abuse from companies attempting to increase their profit over the backs of their employees. I’ve worked at many companies where the owners work far more and harder than their employees just to keep the company alive and able to pay those employees because studios and agency are trying to increase their profits on his back.

      Oraganizing will not prevent the downward racing as you say. There are only two things that will stop the downward spiral. One is for California to be giving the same incentives that other states and countries are providing. The other is our prices get so low that they match the prices of these other states/countries after their incentives. However at that point any sane person will have long left the business or have moved to one of these other states or countries.

      You say the work will stay here becuase the people are here. I’m not sure I understand that. Unless you’ve been living on Mars you know that isn’t whats been happening over the past 10 years. Everyday more work is leaving. Just ask any of the unfortunate people that lost their jobs today at Asylum.

      I guess I’m not really sure what you’re really providing. Insurance can be had for artists. It can be had through the VES, and like Tyler said through NASE and places like Costco.

      Your offer to give artists a voice is offering nothing more than to be their mommy. Artists already have a voice, they just need to stand up and exercise it.

      So it comes down to this. You have no plans or ideas to keep work here. A HUGE benefit I would say every artist would want. You offer health care, which any artist that spends more than 5 mins looking into can get if they don’t already get that benefit from their cruel employeer. And finally you can make the mean vfx companies be nice to their artists. Something the artists can and should do for themselves if they can grow a pair.

      I honestly can’t see why any artist worth a grain of salt would need a union. In the short term its going to cost them in dues and in the long term it will cost them their jobs. Although those artists who can’t hold a job for more than a month because they can’t really do their job and collect unemployment half the year because they want to stay home and get high will love you.

      Lets say a vfx companies refuses to hire union workers. What are you going to do then? What can you do?

      I also have 0% confidence in any union to manage a pension. Just look at the mess a lot of companies and states are facing because of pensions.

      Do you work in the VFX industry Steve? Have you ever run a business?

      It seems to me all you want to do is pass of vfx companies as some kind of bad guys. I for one am extremly grateful to the companies I’ve been able to work at over the years and hope they never have to be subjected to unions. They already have enough to deal with.


  28. This was attempted in 1993, when the CG side of VFX was just gaining ground. I know this because I was part of several unions attempts to make this happen. I worked at a major VFX studio and the artists expressed no interest in unionizing because they were getting paid very well and got a great deal of perks. They turned it down then and now we’ve see the result, lower wages and longer hours.

    If they do organize, which I hope they do, all I can see happening is that the remaining work in L.A. and the US will go overseas or up over the border. You can not blame the VFX companies. They are simply trying to make it work and are feeling more and more pressure from shorter deadlines and skimpier budgets. The fish rots at the head, i.e. the studios/networks.

    Until big business stops outsourcing jobs to other countries that pay slave wages that one couldn’t possibly live on in the U.S., it won’t change. And this isn’t just the movie industry, this practice has affected every industry in America. It will be our downfall. And sadly for many it already has.

  29. Pingback: IATSE President Loeb Announces Visual Effects Organizing Drive « Nickelodeon CG Artists and The Animation Guild

  30. I’d be for unionization if all digital artists came under the SAME LOCAL. I’m freelance and if I want to work at, say Fox and NBC-Universal I have to join two different locals and pay double initiation fees and dues. This is unacceptable. Obviously it would seem unlikely that either of the locals that I would have to deal with would willingly give up their share of the membership to the other.

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