Thursday, March 10, 2011

Global VFX Workers

Paddy Eason from the U.K asked in a previous posting about the possibility of a global union for vfx workers.

The following are some notes I wrote this last weekend.  Some this refers back to a previous posting I had made.  I’m just tossing out some possible ideas to get people thinking about options.

Unfortunately various government laws and varying health care options make having a traditional union be global a difficult proposition. IATSE (union of camera crews and most of the crafts people working in motion pictures) covers the US and has parallel labor agreements in Canada.  How far they can move beyond Canada would be worth a discussion with them.  (For those in LA there's a union picnic this Burbank on Sunday afternoon.  You can also contact them via email jgoodman@iatse-intl.com)

As a union employee if I go to another country and the company paying me is a union company, I would continue to work under those terms but that’s not the same as being a global union.

Before there was the real prospect of a true vfx union here in the U.S. I posted about establishing a Code of Standards for vfx companies.  Should the union efforts fail it might be worth considering.  And certainly may be worth considering in areas with a number of vfx or related companies that aren’t covered by a union.

The idea would be to have a group of vfx workers draft a list of working conditions requirements.  I would suggest using some of the existing union documents as a starting point.  Some of the possible issues could be: weekly payments (paid on time), if payment is not made worker has right to leave, clean work environment, safe work environment, ergonomical working setup, food break every 6 hours, 15 minute break every 4 hours, 12 hr minimum turnaround time (time you clock out until you’re required back at work), and might include such things as:  limit of x hrs in a day, limit of x hrs a week, limit of x days without a day off, double time after x hrs, double time starting on 6th day and beyond, etc.  Now the real unions do include some of these things such as food breaks, turnaround time, over time rates, etc but they don’t include any caps on amount of hours or days worked to my knowledge but I know that’s an issue with a lot of vfx workers who are tired of working 90-120 hr weeks.

So the issue would be for a group to come up with reasonable guidelines for both workers and companies.  All of these things would need to be feasible throughout the world.  The idea is to set a minimum level working environment. I should point out most medium to large vfx shops already provide reasonable environments so that portion shouldn’t be an issue.

This document probably wouldn’t cover such things as actual minimum rates for different types of positions but they could if it was desired.  There is cost of living that already known and calculated for all major cities in the world.  When I worked in London I had a given per diem that would qualify under the US tax code.  This would mean it’s possible to say a roto person would be paid at least x % of the cost of living index in that city.  A Compositor would be paid a minimum of y %.  So if you worked in London and moved to New York or China you’d have some idea for what the minimum would be. Note that these are minimums, just like the union does.  You can certainly negotiate higher rates depending on your experience, skill, etc.

Once a guideline was drafted then the idea would be to discuss it with the different companies. Now many vfx do have reasonable working conditions so the biggest sticking points with them would be the caps on time worked or if the overtime was higher than they’re currently paying.  Of course those factors would also encourage them and the studios to do more planning and to avoid getting into situations that workers are squeezed.

This guideline may not touch on benefits or it’s possible that may only be in U.S. version.  Many US companies have some types of benefits so this would merely list the minimum benefits in order to get the seal of approval as it were.

So what would be in it for the vfx companies?
Assuming the guidelines are not unreasonable most companies probably qualify now.  (With exceptions of caps as noted) If a company signs then they are listed on the group website with the seal of approval of the vfx workers.  Now when vfx workers finish up a project or are considering working elsewhere the seal of approval would be part of their decision process of where they’d want to work.  If all other things were equal most would tend to opt to go to a company that was willing to commit to signing the guidelines. Because you’d know if the company was unwilling to signup then it’s likely not up to the same working standards or that it could easily drop those working standards when they choose.  Key info about the company could also be posted such as benefits packages, etc.  Signed companies could possibly run job postings on the site.

Studios would also be aware which companies provided reasonable working conditions.  Now that might not have much influence but again if all things were equal the studio would know the company is serious about getting the best workers and less likely to cause a problem.  It would also help separate the fly by night companies from the companies who are in it for real.  This last part would depend on what requirements and vetting would be required. The hope would be if both workers and studios leaned toward companies with the seal of approval, more companies would be interested in signing and maintaining those working conditions.

I’ve thought of these as largely non-legal and non-binding documents.  It could go the other way and these could be made to have more teeth but just getting the thing rolling would be the biggest step.  With today’s communication it would be then easy to monitor the companies.  Any verified infractions of the guidelines would be listed on the web page so if a company didn’t live up to the guidelines that would be noted (possibly with worker ratings) and if it was bad enough then they’d be removed.

Let’s suppose a company doesn’t pay their workers on a given week.  The workers would contact the global vfx group handling all of this. They contact the vfx company and suggests the workers should be paid in 24 hrs.  If that doesn’t happen the workers can quit, the group tweets and a big red x is put over the company name on the website (so workers now avoid that place like the plague) and the group sends a note to Variety and related outlets that this specific vfx company didn’t pay their workers this last week even though they’re working on such and such movie or tv show.  Imagine a director, producer or studio with current work at this company or those considering bringing a project to this company.  I suspect there would be a few phone calls happening with the owner’s of the vfx company.  As I covered in another post, don’t be taken advantage of. Act as a group if there is a major problem at the company you work for.  It’s the only way to have some control over the situation.  Quit if you’re not paid.

So the good news you could conceivably have some type of consistent seal of approval and at least have some minimum working conditions.  Now most of this is similar to a union but a union is already setup for this type of thing and they have true contracts with the companies. In most areas of the US if the majority of a workers at a company want to unionize they can do so.  At that point it’s not optional for the company. And a union is united with other unions so there’s even more strength in numbers. A union also provides transferable benefits between companies that this does not.

Trade organization
The other part of all of this is a potential trade organization. There have been a few meetings and what started as a US centric group has potentially expanded to more of a global organization.  I say potential since even though there have been some meetings there has been very little activity.

There are a number of trade organizations that cover a wide range of services and products all over the world.  They’re tailor fit for their common good.

A trade organization would help to standardize bidding (similar to AICP commercial bids) and other things.  As a group it could allow sub-groups to lobby for tax breaks or advertise as a group.  Companies couldn’t have collusion (setting the same bids) but I believe they could set a minimum (i.e. no less than the actual cost of the work).  This would prevent a race to the bottom.

Trade organizations tend to be thought of in a very stereotypical fashion, just as unions are.  There would be concern if each sub-group was lobbying that there would conflict between sub-groups.  Here’s the thing, you’re building a group from scratch so it can be what you want it to be.  (A vfx union from scratch could also has a certain amount of flexibility of structure)  Organize and cover the things that are similar. Build on that.  If there are non-overlapping areas or areas that are at odds, then that’s probably not covered by the group.

A trade organization could actually do many of the things listed above (Seal of Approval) and if they took it a step further it’s likely they could provide some mechanism for providing benefits that traveled at least for workers within that country to other companies in the trade organization.  The problem though is all power and control is in their hands and if they chose tomorrow to stop benefits there would be nothing to prevent them.  That’s why in many industries there is a worker’s group (or union) and the companies to balance the power just as some governments have multiple branches to allow a balance of power.

2 comments:

  1. The Idea of a Code of Standards for VFX workers is one we should all seize on immediately to establish. And we can do it right now without waiting for "official" word about what benefits we'll get or how much wage X will be.

    There are disparate efforts to do some parts of this with sites like vfxwages, LA3D and my Motion Graphic Design Census, but putting those ideas together under one artists' organization with the ability for some sort of leverage with studios and companies worldwide, I think, is the key to the puzzle.

    Thanks for keeping on top of this issue, Scott.

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  2. Janice CollierFebruary 28, 2013

    Big fan of the 12-hour turnaround, which is neatly summed up (with some actual data on what it does to programmers' productivity) here:

    http://blog.abakas.com/2008/08/12-hour-rule.html

    ReplyDelete