On November 11, 2010 IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) announced their intention to organize visual effects artists, making the announcement by way of a letter delivered to the Visual Effects Society. To mark the one year anniversary we’re going to look at the status of this effort, what has happened in the past year and touch base with people who have been active in the discussion.
Unfortunately, the least active in the discussion has been IATSE itself. A year after announcing, they still have no web site, have consented to no press interviews and have done by all accounts an terrible job of communicating with those they wish to represent.
Let’s begin with what IATSE has done in this past year. Jimmy Goodman was brought on to run the campaign and promptly began targeting specific companies, holding meetings in various bars around Los Angeles. fxguide attended one of the first meetings on Main Street in Santa Monica, along with about 15 other artists. Goodman laid out the reasons why visual effects artists should be represented by a union – hitting topics like labor law enforcement assistance, portable benefits and retirement plans. He also dispelled many myths about unions. At the end of the meeting people were interested in more information that they could read and share with other artists. Many asked about a web site with more details and facts. The only information Goodman had was verbal, except for blank union cards to sign. It was clear this was going to be a tough road if IATSE continued this path.
A few months later, fxguide attended a meeting held on Venice beach. Several people expressed nervousness about their employers knowing they were at the meeting and said others did not attend for that reason. Artists in attendance were very clear that they live on computers and any effort to reach them should include every online and social media tool. Certainly a web site is not the only missing link in this effort, but it is an information campaign. It does not take much to see how these type of things are won by examining popular culture.
fxguide has repeatedly offered IATSE the opportunity to do a podcast and/or a written article, but all offers have been rejected. Beyond Goodman and Peter Marley, we had an exchange with the new Director of Communications for IATSE and again, nothing. Our requests go back as far as when we started hearing about secret meeting between IATSE and select members of the VFX community, long before the formal announcement. fxguide is owned and operated by visual effects artists, if they won’t speak with us then how do they expect to reach artists? Our offer to sit down with IATSE for a proper interview remains open. Let them know how you feel about this by emailing [email protected].
The effort by IATSE has been so universally criticized that there have been suggestions floated that IATSE is using visual effects as a bargaining chip with the studios on other contracts, essentially tanking the effort to benefit existing members. David Rand used the phrase “planned epic fail” and composed an open letter to IATSE in April. Jimmy Goodman responded to these allegations on his blog in a post titled “What we do best”. Even as we prepared this story we received an email asking if we had heard a “rumor that Studios and VFX shops paid off IATSE to stop organizing in LA.” We have been presented with no evidence to this effect and we chalk this up the the extreme result of the bad communication by the union.
To date, the only direct online information from IATSE is a blog started by Goodman at ia4thefuture.blogspot.com. This blog has good information and you can see that his heart is in the right place. His most recent post offers to help artists with labor issues:
“Don’t want to sign a card? I’ll live with that. Don’t want to reveal your name or place of employment? I’ll live with that too. What I won’t live with is letting you get screwed. So, give me a call. Let’s figure out a way to protect you without exposing you to retaliation and harassment. The first step is to get you paid what you’re owed. After that, the possibilities are endless. But let’s get started.”
We’d love to hear from any artists who take him up on this offer. Goodman is passionate about helping visual effects artists and creating this new branch of IATSE.
For this article we solicited input from fxguide readers and one response really stood out. It was from Visual Effects artist Michael Levine:
“I’ve worked in the fx business for 14 years, most of those in the LA area. This past year I spent working in Australia at Rising Sun Pictures. Of course the reasons for leaving LA to work are an article unto itself. I’ve been following all the union talk from afar via twitter and fxguide. From my lurker standpoint across the Pacific, it seemed like things were really picking up steam and changes might be happening. Well imagine my surprise when I returned to the United States to find that not only had things not changed, but everyone I knew was not even aware of these efforts at all. It seems either my friends and co-workers are really clueless, or IATSE has made absolutely zero impact on the mindshare of artists. I’ve had several lunches where I’ve tried to quickly sum up the whole story, the Lee Stranahan letter, IATSE cookie day at the beach, etc etc. Each one of these talks resulted in blank stares, it was the first time anyone was aware that there was any union talk at all.”
This sentiment was echoed during Siggraph in Vancouver when someone mentioned on twitter that they were talking to an artist from San Francisco who did not even know there was an organizing effort.
There has been a groundswell of information and misinformation filling the vacuum left by IATSE. On the positive side, voices like Scott Squires, David Rand and an anonymous blogger called vfxsoldier have been important in filling that void. Likewise The Animation Guild (local 839) and Vancouver IATSE (local 891) have been very active and involved with artists. In September The Art Director’s Guild announced it is actively trying to recruit Previz Artists and has setup a web site – directactionartist.com.
Usually anonymous bloggers are easy to dismiss. In the case of vfxsoldier, they are impossible to ignore. This blog has covered all of the pertinent angles of this discussion. We asked vfxsoldier for thoughts as we hit the one year mark (excerpt – read them in their entirety at vfxsoldier: IATSE VFX Organizing Effort One Year Later):
“Without a doubt the last year in organizing vfx workers has been disappointing. We are still seeing colleagues being misclassified as independent contractors and not being paid overtime appropriately. Even those employed at the good facilities are hampered by the inability to obtain portable health and retirement benefits in a production environment where artists are expected to jump project to project, facility to facility.”
“These problems affect all kinds of workers in the industry. I met a veteran technical director who has a phd in computer science. The facility he works for does not offer health insurance coverage and because of his pre-existing condition, he is unable to get private health insurance. Some of the attendees to the union meetings held by Jim Goodman were Oscar winners. In other words, no one is immune to these problems and it’s incredible that such a professional industry is hampered by what I would consider a 3rd world problem.”
Scott Squires is a senior visual effects artist and VES board member. Squires blog is well thought out, well researched and based on years of experience. Squires has added greatly to this discussion on a range of topics. If you were looking for places to start reading about the many issues involved, you should start by spending some time catching up on posts at Scott Squires blog.
David Rand is a visual effects artist who came to our attention in 2008 when he became the spokesman for a group of artists in Montreal who were left unpaid by a facility after working on Journey to the Center of the Earth. Unfortunately, since this event we have seen the same thing repeated several times as artists in the middle of a project suddenly stop receiving checks, are promised payment and the company folds. Rand has taken a very vocal role in speaking out on behalf of artists. You can hear Rand speak passionately about his love for the business and his personal experience on the front lines in “A Conversation with Dave Rand” on the IATSE 891 site: iatse891vfx.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/a-conversation-with-dave-rand-4 .
The Animation Guild
The Animation Guild represents thousands of animators working in traditional animation and also at Studios including Dreamworks, Disney and Sony. They have been very open and engaging with artists and have been acting in a supporting role in this effort. They have a web site and a very active blog that covers issues that affect the industry as a whole and specific to animation. With lines blurred between previz, animation and visual effects, it is clear this asset is well liked by artists and is being under utilized.
IATSE 891, Vancouver
In stark contrast to what is going on in California, Dusty Kelly in Vancouver has been active with meetings, a blog, a website, YouTube videos, twitter… engaging artists everywhere she can.
The topic of a union often gets dismissed with statements like “that ship has sailed”, “it’s too late”, “all the work will leave” – all of these are easy to debunk by examining history or doing some basic research. We have heard calls for “Better Management”, “Change the whole business model”, “Subsidies are illegal” and many more. Not to dismiss these claims, but it is easy to derail a discussion about labor issues by introducing topics that are unsolvable by the individual.
The Visual Effects Society announced in May that “VES 2.0 is here and ready to lead” and Eric Roth added “We are the only viable organization that can speak to the needs and concerns of everyone involved in VFX to meet the challenges of a changing global industry and our place within it.” In September VES released an Industry Bill of Rights outlining recommendations for best practices for artists, facilities and studios.
Have any companies pledged to follow the Bill of Rights? Studios? Is VES 2.0 planning on certifying that member companies classify workers properly? If there are members on the board who represent companies who do not follow labor laws… should they be allowed to participate? What are the next steps? We look forward to hearing more about VES 2.0 and the Bill of Rights.
Trade Associations, Christmas Trees and Porn
One thing there seems to be no argument about is that the business model visual effects operates under is in need of change. Scott Ross (Industry pioneer, ILM, founder of Digital Domain) has been the most vocal advocate for a trade association, we spoke with him about this in a couple of our most popular fxpodcasts (links below). Wikipedia defines a trade association as “an organization founded and funded by businesses that operate in a specific industry” and describes the main focus as “…collaboration between companies, or standardization”. A trade association gives a voice to an industry. We can all talk about broken business models and such but just as individual artists have limits as to what they can accomplish on their own, visual effect companies acting on their own also lack power to affect real change. Many issues being discussed require lobbying in the political arena, this is a primary function of a trade organization – “attempt to influence public policy in a direction favorable to the group’s members”. There are over 7600 trade associations in the US alone, from the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) to the adult entertainment industry (Free Speech Coalition). For some reason this idea seems to have no support from the facilities. Talking with a vfx supervisor about this we were asked an interesting question – “could it be that some people running visual effects companies are happy with the way things are”?
Some have suggested that this is a US only issue, even a Los Angeles only issue. The same issues that affect artists that live in areas that can be represented by a union, apply to workers worldwide. We have seen recent posts online regarding work conditions in India. The benefit of IATSE being open and demonstrative in what they want for workers would be that every worker globally could hear their message.
As companies find themselves more and more squeezed, it is often artists that bear the brunt of that squeeze. If a show is utilizing a lot of overtime, the show likely does not have enough staff or is being run badly. fxguide’s Mike Seymour recently appeared on a podcast “That Post Show” and made the point that if you are working for a company that is working people 100 hours in a week to get a job done, your job is in much more danger from that company going out of business than shipping your job overseas.
In the course of talking to people in preparation for this article, we came across some interesting views about companies needing to be more transparent. We also heard calls for codes of conduct, or online ways of evaluating companies. We are looking into these for future podcasts and articles.
What can Artists Do?
In the spirit of trying to focus on achievable things, we offer a few suggestions. In October 2010 VES held a seminar about workers being classified as 1099 instead of employees – misclassification of workers. In our coverage of that event we pointed out that it is not up to the artist or the employer to decide this classification. Among other considerations, if you are doing work that requires supervision it is not proper to be classified as a 1099 worker. Once determination is made that you should be an employee, local labor laws apply. In California, there is no such thing as a day rate and overtime rules apply (time and a half after 8 hours, double time after 12). There is no “creative exemption” and this applies to all areas of our business (including motion graphics which we frequently hear is more rife with abuses than visual effects). It is up to artists to invest in themselves by understanding local labor laws. With tax revenues shrinking, both the federal and state governments are looking at all areas where taxes are being skirted and they imposing severe penalties.
Employers of Record
As the government is cracking down on misclassification of workers, we are seeing creative ways being used by companies to continue unfair practices. As we were preparing this article, we started hearing from artists about several large companies using Yurcor, an Employer of Record (EOR) company. Instead of hiring workers as employees and properly following labor laws and paying all taxes, companies use an EOR as the employer. The EOR does not hire or fire, does not negotiate rates or terms and does not supervise the work. Readers may recall that about a year ago this was happening with a different company that has since left the visual effects space after getting publicly trashed in online forums. The Animation Guild 839 has been vocal about this and is looking for people to come foreword as they are exploring legal action on behalf of artists with regards to tax issues with this system:
Animation Guild Blog: The latest vfx scam: Artists paying all the taxes
Animation Guild Blog: Wage Theft: What Can You Do?
IATSE needs to make clear what their intentions are in a big, public way. Artists need to be able to evaluate what IATSE is offering, look at their situation and decide what is best for them. Considering the horror stories we hear regularly from artists – not getting paid, working insane hours, not being paid overtime, not having health care, having no vacation days, no sick days, worker misclassification, being forced to work through Employer of Record companies and other abuses – it is hard to see why IATSE would have any problem collecting signature cards.
The need for visual effects is increasing on a global level and yet conditions for workers have declined. If visual effects artists are ever to join every other craft on a film under union representation, it must be started by, and be driven by, the artists. Artists must come to the conclusion that as a group they have power, while as individuals they are on their own. It is a lot harder for an individual being offered employment terms that violate labor laws to stand up for themselves, but as a group artists can stop these practices. The same applies to companies when it comes to bidding standards and publicly embracing codes of conduct. Visual effects companies and Visual Effects Artists deserve better than they are getting now, at some point we need to stop wishing for change and take meaningful steps to demand the respect we deserve.