Monday, February 21, 2011

Unions, the Middle class and visual effects

For those of you who may not be aware the American Middle Class is under attack by the rich and the powerful.  The corporations are pushing ahead in the name of greed.  For those of you who don't understand unions or what the have done for you already...

Wisconsin Power Play

Like Weekends? Thank Wisconsin

Added link:
Union busting sponsored by Billionaire Brothers The greed never stops.

What's happening in Wisconsin

The Governor's 'money saving methods'

Just how long can the companies keep fooling people with rhetoric and hypocrisy?

In the world of motion picture production in the U.S. almost all categories of people involved belong to a union of one sort or another.  Directors, writers, actors, camera crew, art department, wardrobe, makeup, grips, etc. with the exception of Visual Effects (VFX).   Why are they all union?  Because then they have health insurance and pension.  Critical for anyone involved in the freelance world of motion pictures (including television and commercials).  In this country health insurance is out of control.  Yearly increases of of over 20-30% are happening every year now.  Soon the only people who will have health care will be those in congress.

Getting Health Care Insurance

The other thing a union provides is a method of collective bargaining.  A person of one has very little
input and is very easy to dismiss and ignore.

I'm not here to say all unions are perfect. The thing though to understand you typically have one group (such as a company) who wants to pay the least possible it can in wages and benefits.
In the motion picture industry many new comers would be more than happy to work for minimum wage or to pay to work on a project.  Most company's don't care except for their top tier of people.
On the other side of the spectrum you have unions who try to keep up wages and benefits as much as reasonable.  It can be a tug of war which would be lost immediately if there were no balance.

Just a quick recap for newcomers:
VFX artists work around the world.  Typical work week is 50hrs minimum but 90 hr+ weeks and 7 days a week are not that uncommon.  Given those hours they typically give up much social and family life.

These are hard working people working on very complex images under incredible time limits. They've developed very specialized high technology skill sets and artistic ability learned through years of experience.

Work is on a project by project basis so after a few months the worker may have finished on one film project and now have to search for work all over again.  Any health care that they might get will be gone as they have to work for another company.

In the topsy turvy world of vfx, the top 20 money making films of all time are vfx films.  The top vfx films every year create billions of dollars of gross.  And yet profits for those involved in vfx is minimal.  The various tax incentives around the world have made it impossible to compete on a level playing field.

Those interested in VFX Union can get basic questions answered here.

Those who are involved with visual effects but don't have an interest in some type of representation fall in a few groups it seems to me.

1. Those concerned that all work in the U.S. will instantly vanish should the U word even be uttered.
Here's the reality: the unions are not stupid.  They will have to work with the companies to strike a reasonable balance.  Since most VFX workers currently make reasonable wages the big issue will be benefits.  Those companies that pay no benefits will be the hardest hit. But if they're not providing benefits it seems like they're on thin ice already. If you're working for a company who doesn't provide any benefits and have to pay your own health care and other taxes just how good of spot are you anyway?  How long will the company stay in business if it has to squeeze this much? Are you really making a working wage if you're paying your own health insurance?  (and the punch line is: 'What, and give up show business?')

2. Those who are young and naive to think everything will sort itself out.  You're not sick.  You haven't been to a doctor in 5 years.  La ti da.  And why do you think you have car insurance?
The problem here is time does fly by quickly, more quickly than you think. At some point you may want to marry, have kids and have a house. How are you even going to be able to afford insurance at that point?  You think you're paid well but try paying $12-24,000 after taxes to just cover health insurance?  What happens if the unexpected happens?  You're hosed. A percentage of those people who had their home foreclosed or living on the street? Bankruptcy due to illness and medical
expenses.  The health insurance companies in the U.S. are in it for profit.  They're like the house at a casino.  They always win.  The rates are always in their favor.  Do you want to take the chance?

3. Those who think of themselves as artists.  Too cool for school.  Hmmm, tell me again my directors, writers, camera people and others are covered by unions but you don't want to be?

4. Those that think that all companies are looking after their employees.
Many vfx companies have been started by vfx artists themselves.  But as time goes on mistakes may be made.  Sometimes there are bad decisions, changes in management and other things that change the working conditions.  When that happens you might not be sitting on the top of the pile after all.  More than a few people have had the rug pulled out from under them. If the company goes under any health care you have is instantly gone.

5. You think you can alway negotiate for a great benefits and wage package. The various vfx
schools are churning out more vfx artists than the market can bear every year.  Don't you think
the companies are eyeing the newcomers more the higher your coverage goes up? Many companies see their employees as cogs just as the studios look at vfx as a commodity. At some point your luck will run out. And it's actually very unlikely that great benefits package you got was as
great as you thought.

Follow up:  How these things tie together


  1. Great post, thanks Scott.

  2. All due respect sir, but with the class warfare rhetoric in the beginning, you're not doing your cause a favor :) Sure, it could be good to set up an union, but not in this 'us versus then' style, we're all doing biz here and gotta get along :)

  3. Those who work outside of the US or in a country that has healthcare and superannuation provided by the government?

  4. Thanks Scott for posting. This exact senerio happen to me.

  5. I used to visit this blog for great info on visual effects.
    Debates about the situation of VFX people and their work conditions seemed fine too (though too frequent, IMO). But I guess when the posts start with words like "The American Middle class is under attack", then probably I am not reading the same blog I used to.
    Change is nice, but then shouldn't this blog change its name to "Voice of the oppressed" or something similar?

  6. I'm curious; the VFX industry is filled with tales of houses that closed down owing their workers weeks or even months of back pay. Does anyone know if that ever happened at a union organized shop? (I suspect not, but I don't know for certain.)

  7. Union house closing - since there haven't been many union houses this isn't common for VFx. Illusion arts was union and I don't think they owed anybody.

    One of the requirements I believe to become a union shop is some type of restriction to prevent the company from closing in the middle of the night. Question to be asked on or the Iatse site.

    One thing the union certainly prevents is working weeks without being paid. If people aren't paid they call their union rep and it's dealt with. That was the problem with Montreal when workers put up with it and going in one by one to management had no effect. The only way to stand up is as a group in numbers (ie union) if all people are willing to stop, now, then management has to step up to the plate and make it happen.
    The other thing the union provides is your health care continues. If you work at a nonunion place they can close or stop your health care with no notice.

  8. Evidently some people are having the hard time making the connection between what's happening in VFx and how that relates to such things as the middle class and unions. (or they simply didn't follow the links). Just because you don't feel directly impacted doesn't mean you aren't nor does it mean it doesn't exist.

    I'll try to post in the next fees days and make this even more connected.

  9. @Anonymous: I work in Germany and if you think healthcare here is cheap - think again :) Maybe it's good - I haven't used it so far, but I have paid many thousands :)

  10. I'm curious as to where a union fits with a global industry? Particularly if you shift from country to country for work. A few years, USA, UK, NZ, where you are in a mix of systems, in some where you pay into a National Insurance scheme, how do you cover that with a union?
    I, as do many others, worry about where we'll be left in such a scenario, how does one consolidate work across multiple systems?
    If a union could cover a worker internationally then I'd be in it.


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