So now that that there seems to be some movement to get a VFX union started, from two different unions no less, what’s next?
As mentioned before there’s an amazing amount of stereotyping and ignorance regarding unions. This isn’t the auto industry from 60 years ago. I urge everyone to attend a union meeting if you have the opportunity so you can get direct answers without relying on what someone once told you that heard from his friend’s cousins… The following are some notes and information to help clarify some things and to help provide fuel for questions for the union.
Both the IA and IBEW will need some VFX people involved on their end if they’re serious about this area to make sure they understand the issues and the job categories. The IA certainly has an advantage since it has the Animation Guild 839 and Steve Kaplan along with the Vancouver VFX union 891. The IA covers a wider range of people working in the motion picture industry including the camera union. The IBEW still doesn’t quite know what we do and the range of vfx jobs.
The unions need to be very clear and articulate about what advantages they offer to employees and to employers. This hasn’t always happened and certainly if they are to sway a large portion of vfx artists, it has to happen.
The unions need to present a real plan more than just telling people to fill out their union cards.
VFX artists will have to participate to make sure that if it happens, it’s done right.
The unions also have to give some consideration how this affects the major studios. There was a time when studios had to subcontract work to union shops. Obviously anything the unions could do to encourage the use of union companies by the studios would be an advantage.
Jurisdiction area – The unions need to be clear about what type of area they will cover. Is it just L.A? Is it all of the U.S? Even though it’s unlikely the union could cover people in other parts of the world it could provide a basis of agreement elsewhere. Case in point is the Writers union (WGA). Even if a writer sells a screenplay to non-union production company, they usually ask for their deal to be based on the WGA standard agreement. This provides a clear agreement about rates and payment schedules. The same thing could happen with vfx if there’s a union in place even if it’s only in L.A.
The cost to be in the union:
There is typically an inition fee to join the union. Both the IA and IBEW have stated that for vfx people this be waved for this initial setup of the union.
There are dues to be paid quarterly or yearly. The IBEW has stated that their dues are prorated to some extent if you work fewer hours. The IA dues are the same regardless of the amount you work.
What are the advantages of a union to VFX artists?
(Here are a few. I’m sure the lists can be extended)
1. Health and welfare that works across multiple companies. The days of lifelong employment at one company are gone. Most vfx positions are project based with work lasting a few months to several months being the norm. Even if you are on staff somewhere, at some point you will probably move on to another company for any number of reasons. Even if the next company has health insurance it will require starting over from scratch with a different program and probably a different insurance carrier. You will likely have to work so many days before you’re covered. Will it start up before your insurance from your previous employment lapses? What if it takes 3 months to qualify and you’re only on the project 4 months?
A union health plan allows you to switch companies as projects come and go, and to keep the same health and retirement benefits. Most people working in film, TV and commercials are project based and their work on a particular project might only be for a day. That’s one of the reasons the unions exist.
Both the IATSE and the IBEW use the same motion picture health plan. That means the type of coverage and requirements for hours worked are the same.
Side note: I know those of you living in civilized countries that have health care find all of this puzzling. Here in the U.S. almost all health care is profit based. The hospitals have whole accounting departments to make sure everything is billed in its entirety. There are multiple medical insurance companies that exist to make a profit. Their executives fly on private jets with gold plated silverware. The numbers of different plan options are staggering and byzantine. How much money are you willing to risk being hit up for (deductable) versus how much you have to shell out every month in insurance fees? If you need to go into the emergency room and spend a week in the hospital, especially if you need a day or two in intensive care, your bill will likely be over $50,000.
The insurance companies have people employed whose sole purpose is to go through claims and see if they can be denied for any reason. If you failed to remember you had some issue 10 years ago when you filled out your latest forms, they could deny you coverage. That insurance you had been paying? Gone. The amount you owe the hospital or doctor? 100%
I had to purchase a prescription when I was in London on a project with no local health insurance. The cost: $7. The cost for the same medication in the US with insurance: $30.
People in their early 20’s may be able to get insurance for $200 a month but that rapidly climbs with each passing year. For private insurance it’s not unusual for those with existing conditions, families or middle aged people to have to pay $1500 to $2000 a month for insurance. That can be $24,000 a year in just health insurance expenses. At least part of that may be deducible from your taxes but that’s still a huge amount, especially when the median pay in the US is approx. $50,000 before taxes.
Health costs are rising approx. 20% every year currently. One insurance company tried to increase fees 39% last year until the government stepped in and asked them to recheck their figures. Oops, they made a mistake. Now it’s only 20%.
Many employers offer health insurance of some type but the coverage is all over the map. They aren’t required to provide coverage so it can be none. Some companies keep many part time employees so they can avoid paying any coverage and related items that may be required by the government.
Bottom line is health coverage is a big deal.
The down sides to union health coverage:
To initially qualify you need to have worked 600 hrs in 6 months.
After that you need to work 300 hrs every months to qualify.
(Some time next year that increases to 400 hrs every 6 months)
That means you could be in the union and paying dues and still not have insurance if you’re not working enough.
The good news is that you can bank your hours worked so your coverage could last much longer.
The union insurance isn’t immune to rising health care costs so just as with company health insurance it maybe reduced in part by higher deducibles, higher co-pays, etc.
2. Paid overtime. Note that there are state laws already that dictate how and when overtime is to be paid but companies find various means to avoid it in some cases. Making many people ‘managers’ so they’re salary employees, changing employees to ‘contractors’, etc. The union overtime rates are laid out in detail.
3. Job titles and credits.
One thing the union would have to do is set specific job titles and specific definitions of each job title. This has been lacking in vfx. Most unions cover a small range of types of jobs. In the case of vfx workers there will be a wide range of jobs and how it’s divided up will have to be worked out. Vfx covers roto artist, physical modelers, cg modelers, lighters, compositors, animators, etc.
The union will be unlikely to be able to dictate that all vfx workers get screen credit but they should be able to make sure key or lead artists receive proper credit. They should also be able to make sure that if you’re working doing a particular job that you get paid for doing that job. That also means having ‘contractors’ and non-paid ‘interns’ working along side employees would fall under review and likely eliminated.
4. Paid vacation.
5. United workers. In the last couple of years there were two Montreal vfx companies that failed to pay their employees. The owners just kept telling people they would be able to pay them soon. A union offers a united front so if there’s a major issue with a company such as missed payroll, then they can bring pressure to the company that a single individual could not.
Now many of the better vfx companies already do many of these things but none of them can offer continuous health coverage. And here’s the thing, even at the better, larger companies there are a number of gray areas and things that slip through the cracks. I’ve seen issues with all of the above at various vfx companies over the years. The other thing to realize is a company can change drastically. People who love you in management may be replaced by people who don’t know you from Adam. The company can be bought out. The company can make mistakes. The company at this point holds all the power and you may find yourself taken advantage through no fault of your own. I’ve seen people with contracts with the company being laid off and the contract being ignored. Any legal battle by an individual against a company is a long and expensive route.
What are the advantages of unions to vfx companies?
1. Health insurance costs may actually be lower. Regular health insurance costs to a company are based in part on the number of employees. The company may need someone on staff to help manage and deal with health insurance and pensions issues if there is any. The motion picture health coverage is funded in part by residuals from films, television and commercials so part of the coverage. They also handle the management of the health plan.
2. Union people are qualified and at least have a base level to handle their job title. In vfx currently anyone can call themselves anything whether they actually did that job or knew how to do it. There are processes in place to make sure people are qualified for their position.
3. A union indicates a mature industry and might also encourage companies to move forward with a trade association. The vfx industry has become very lopsided and the introduction of a union and trade associate would hopefully help balance out some of volitale shifts taking place.
Myths and other points
The unions dictate what your wages are so your salary could be less and they limit what you can make.
The unions stipulate a minimum rate for each category. This is the lowest base rate the employer has to pay for someone to do this job at a union company. You may negotiate a higher rate and that’s commonly done in the other IA unions.
The unions are only for lazy people.
Just watch a camera assistant work on a live action shoot to dispel this myth. The slow and lazy are fired, just like any other job.
The union is all based on seniority
There’s no real seniority in the motion picture unions with the exception of what level you are. (i.e. 2nd camera assistant, 1st camera asst, etc) A question for the unions however is about the 'roster' for vfx. In other unions if you haven't worked for awhile (2-3 years) you're taken off the roster. I had thought the IA got rid of this but it still exists.
If you don’t like a place then just change companies.
This statement makes a lot of assumptions. Obviously if you don’t like a place you would switch to another company if you can. But are there jobs available for you elsewhere? If the other companies already have their full team of people required they won’t be hiring you even if you’re great at what you do.
What if there aren’t any vfx company’s nearby? How far do you move? Another state? Another country?
There is no need for unions for since vfx companies don’t make much money.
As already noted there are other reasons than salary to have unions.
The unions will cause what little vfx work here to leave.
People always seem to jump to the conclusion that unions will make everything more expensive. Most vfx artists are already paid reasonable rates so it’s unlikely there will be much of a change to rates. If the company already offers health insurance it’s possible the union health plan may actually be less expensive. Both the unions and the vfx companies will need to find a balance.
If you work at a company that doesn’t offer health insurance and that doesn’t pay you overtime, then yes, it will cost your company more. If you don’t have these things already then you should calculate your real hourly rate. If you live in LA and are making less than living wages then it’s not going to really matter if that project goes elsewhere. It sounds like you need to consider changing companies anyway or possibly changing jobs.
All hiring has to be done through the union.
A union company would have to hire union people when available.
The IBEW actually has a hall that they receive requests for people from companies but as was discussed with them at one of the meetings this approach wouldn’t work with vfx. The IA itself can provide a list of available union members in that category but they themselves state they don’t provide a hiring hall.
If you’re in the union you can’t work on at a non-union company.
Both the IA and the IBEW have stated that vfx artists can work at non-union companies. The time you work non-union of course will not be counted toward your health plan.
Being in a union means that I might have to go on strike.
A strike is typically the last thing anyone wants. It’s almost impossible to make back what you lose during a strike. One thing the strike does offer any union is a serious power threat to the companies they are negotiating with.
The IA contracts state that an arbitration would be required. A strike at any union requires some type of majority vote by its members. It’s not just up to the board of directors.
The writers and SAG are two other unions (not IA). The writers went on strike because the majority of them thought that was the thing they had to do. SAG threatened a strike and took months to finally come to terms with the producers. Note that as union members it would be up to you to vote for the type of people you want to represent you.
Unions can’t stop outsourcing from happening. With some countries and states offering incentives worth 20-40+ % off, the studios will attempt to leverage that as much as they can. The IA has unionized many areas in the U.S. so if a production moves to another state to shoot or do post production they’re still covered by the union.
Changing coverage or rates.
If the vfx company you work for suddenly decides to increase benefits or pay rates, be very concerned. It‘s not unusual for a company to try to dissuade employees from going union and to do so they may offer an attractive package. In many cases in the past these promises never came to fruition or were short lived. They only existed long enough to prevent the union from forming. There’s no restriction on the company to make sure they maintain their promises or benefits and rates so many take advantage of that.
Beautiful clarification, Scott. I hope everyone will read your comments as they make up their minds on this important issue.ReplyDelete
Thanks and best wishes,
Useful, but it would be better if you took out the needlessly ad hominem bits about health insurance. It reduces your credibility to have such shrill and, frankly, not exactly well-informed bits in what is otherwise a reasonable overall piece arguing your case.ReplyDelete
Hate to say it but all the insurance bits are based on real experience. I'd consider that well informed. I've also found that those who don't have to deal with this don't tend to see the issue. That includes both those outside the u.s. and young people joining the working ranks. Simply stating that health insurance is included with union work doesn't tend to register if you don't have some perspective.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this Scott. While I'd add a few things that are TAG and IATSE specific, you've presented the points succinctly and accurately. This is definite must-read.ReplyDelete
The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE
Thank you Scott. The points you lay out need to be heard by all VFX Artists! This topic certainly has sparked a heated debate, the sad part is that most people dont understand all the points, or like you said, dont realise that health insurance for someone in there 40's with a family is a lot different then health insurance for a single person in their 20's. It also astounds me that no one seems to even think about retirement benefits. We are hard working artists, and need these things to be covered and protected, because no matter how fantastic your employer is, the second business slows down, the employees are the first ones to suffer.ReplyDelete
Very informative, some really good points in there, and some things seem very useful like the health care and guaranteed overtime. But doesn't the root of the problem come from the film side, and how work is bought at the lowest price causing VFX houses to underbid themselves? How can a union fix that?ReplyDelete
it's not just film. Some of the issues occur in tv and commercials as well. The union can't stop underbidding from occurring but the idea is to place a value on the artists. The studios are looking at vfx as a commodity (which it isn't) which in turn causes some vfx companies to look at their employees as a commodity. Any decisions the company makes directly affects all of their employees.ReplyDelete
The vfx companies should consider a trade organization so they can try to maintain a level of quality and price instead of a race to the bottom.
By strengthening the structure of the vfx industry, union and trade organization, it may be possible to help the entire process and make it more than shoving more stuff out at below actual expenses.