In London recently BECTU (Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union) formally requested recognition to represent the compositing department at MPC. fxguide spoke with Paul Evans from BECTU as well as Joe Pavlo, an artist who has been heavily involved in the effort.

Overtime

Overtime abuse is clearly the biggest issue that has brought this to a head. BECTU has spent three years trying to get the companies to introduce paid overtime, to stop abusing the buy out model. Paul Evans: “Our view is that a properly managed company would be able to manage it’s staff, allow them to have a work/life balance while getting the same level of productivity out of them…”.  There are other issues, but they are all dwarfed by the overtime issue.

Tipping Point

“There is a real buzz around it”, Paul said, mentioning that they had over 100 people turn up at a weekly lunch, “this has reached it’s peak, it’s gone over the tipping point”.  Paul was very clear to point out that they are eager to work with the company but “They have been treating us like we’re some sort of nihilistic, a bunch of animals who want to come in and turn their business over… we don’t. They have been very high handed with us, very patronizing, patting us on the head saying ‘you don’t know anything about our business, we’re the grownups in this and it’s very sweet you’re worried about overtime but really the grownups know we can’t run the business without it’ ”.

"We believe that the solution to this is that every vfx company in London be unionized and we're urging every member, everybody who works in visual effects to join BECTU now"

Paul Evans

“We represent others companies, we are a moderate union… “I’ve worked with companies where they use their union relationship to make sure they have a very highly engaged work force and that they are the best employer in the country.”  “There is more work to do in London than there are people to do it, it’s a competitive job market, and our view is that if they were prepared to negotiate properly with the union we’d make MPC the company that everyone wants to work for.”

“When people are prepared to go this far, it’s because they care about something. The employers have simply brushed us aside for too long and said ‘yeah, no, we’re not doing anything about this, we don’t have to’ - they’ve brushed us off.”  “The big issue for our members is they want to be heard, they want to have a dialogue, they want to have a voice, this isn’t about them going in and mugging the company. It’s about going in and knowing that the companies can’t just fob them off."

"We believe that the solution to this is that every vfx company in London be unionized and we're urging every member, everybody who works in visual effects, to join BECTU now"

UK vs. US trade labor law
In the US employers have contracts with unions that have negotatied terms and are renegotiated every so many years.

In the UK there is Trade Union Recognition. If you can show you have sufficient strength, you can force the employer to have to bargain with you. They have to negotiate hours, rates, holidays, redundancy program, etc. … working conditions.  To demonstrate that the union has sufficient strength the union has to show they have 10% or more employees as members and that can be used to force a ballot. If they achieve over 50% in that broader election, the company has to negotiate with the union. It’s very similar on the surface to US trade unions but there are a lot of differences in the details.

One of the big differences is that in the US companies often employ union busting techniques, Paul commented that those type of activities would “completely backfire here”.

Organizing

Since June artist Joe Pavlo has been holding weekly meet ups, a Thursday lunch (follow @VFXUnionUK on twitter for updates).  I spoke to him after the most recent one:  “It was really exciting today because so many people came from other companies as well, and other departments that were not even on our radar.” “We usually get 20-30 people there… today we had well over 100 people”.  Joe mentioned the tremendous concentration of companies in London capable of doing the blockbuster movies level work “if we can unionize London, the rest of the world is going to follow… and by the rest of the world I don’t just mean North America, but I’m really interested in getting the people in India involved because they are more fed up than we are in London.” “This could be a global thing.”

Joe explained how he came to be involved with organizing efforts. "I joined the union around the Life of Pi, Rhythm and Hues who-ha… and I thought ’this is great when is everything going to start happening? And then, nothing happened”. About a year later Paul encouraged people at a meeting to start a committee and Joe joked that everyone else stepped back. Another year passed with the committee designing leaflets, holding occasional meet ups. He finally realized “nothing was happening and the reason nothing was happening is no one was fucking doing anything… everyone is either hoping that something happens or pretending that if you invite someone out to a beer something is going to happen.”  It’s the same experience we observed in Los Angeles with organizing efforts, people think of unions as an organization that is going to come in and do something magical when it is an organization made up and driven by it’s members.  Joe made it a mission to not wait for committees or other people and just started having weekly meet ups. Ask someone to bring someone new next time and he started getting 20 or so people every week. “You have to have a grass roots, you have to meet people”.

MPC statement
MPC has received a formal request for union recognition from BECTU, which we responded to Wednesday [Dec. 2]. The request is seeking recognition for collective bargaining in respect of the MPC film compositing group. BECTU are requesting that they represent the compositors on discussions for pay, hours and holidays. MPC will engage with BECTU in more detailed discussions on their request for recognition

Summary
fxguide had been covering labor issues for many years and has done extensive coverage of efforts to organize visual effects artists. One thing we often heard was that there was no traction for unions outside the US.  Changing the location does not change the problems visual effects face. As an industry matures people start to want to enjoy more quality of life, buy homes, start families, take vacations, build for retirement. When you are routinely asked to work effectively another day of the week (or more) it does not take long for that to take a toll and we are seeing here the results of frustration brought on by that. Add to the mix that the extra hours are unpaid while the movie industry reaps record profits and as Paul said we may have hit that tipping point.

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  • vfxprodder

    A concern I think that most in the London VFX community have about unionisation is the perception that it will hasten the push towards sending even more locally sourced VFX work over to Canada, where the big 3 in Soho already have a massive presence. They seem to view Canada as where the future lies, as the Hollywood studios continue to put ever more pressure on profit margins. Free overtime is perceived (albeit wrongly IMO) by some senior people in the London facilities as the only way of making a decent profit in VFX in London. We’re already seeing a mass migration of talent over to Vancouver, Montreal, etc – where they do pay overtime – as a more appealing (or in some cases, necessary) – alternative to remaining in the UK.

    We are also seeing the steady rise of outsourcing to other parts of the world where labour is cheaper (and less likely to ‘put up a fight’) – I cite India in particular. Matchmove and Roto Prep are on the London VFX endangered species list at the moment – I wonder who’s next?

    I (and I’m sure others) fear that unionising would be the ‘final nail in the coffin’ of what seems to be a slowly declining VFX industry in London, as the big 3 (and others) would just lock up shop and move operations over to Canada & India. They’re unionised in LA, the birthplace of VFX – look how that turned out. This wouldn’t be an unprecedented move – our parents have seen similar things happening in their working lifetime with manufacturing: textile industry, motor industry, list goes on. Pretty sure they had unions too.

    I heartily support this move to unionise, but it also makes me worry about the future of the industry in London.

  • Jeff Heusser

    No vfx companies in LA are unionized. No work left LA due to unions, work left because of subsidies offered by other countries or even other US states.

    Canada has a very big problem. Guest workers can only be in the country for four years without becoming citizens. A shortage of artists is already an issue and will only get worse as people time out.

    Your concern is a common fear of unionizing efforts.

    Jeff

    • susannah williams

      You have to start your Permanent residency application within 4 year’s, not citizenship. You can begin this after 1 year of working in Canada. Montreal sounds harder, with the language barrier, but Vancouver was easy. I became a permanent resident within 2 and a half years of working in Van. At least, this is how it was a year ago. Canada services change their rules every year. It is a little harder now with you now needing staff status to gain permanent residency. This might be a good thing for artists, though.

      I used to work in London, and I have seen a big change in my work life balance. Working in Van, I mostly work 9-5, get paid more. As a staff member, I also receive a pension, sick and paid days off and health insurance. Not as many days as the UK but the ‘normal’ hours more than makes up for it. Vancouver is the place to be with it’s mild weather and plenty of career options. Also one of the few places I can buy a condo as a single person and walk to work without the long commute I had in London. It is not that cheap here, but neither is London.

      I personally do not wish to return to the UK and happy to stay here until my options (subsidies) run out.

  • Bruce Dickson

    I’m very happy to see progress here. I’m pretty sure the more you can focus on VALUES, what values are important and CONSENSUS of values among face-to-face groups, you will continue climbing. Some fre* resources for such group process here: http://healingtoolbox.org/search-results?q=%22group%20process%22