Thursday, April 18, 2013

Visual Effects Guilds

Visual Effects Guilds

[Yes, I know this is long but please consider reading it and follow the links to the vfx union sites. It's your life, your career. Hopefully you think these are worthwhile to spend a few minutes getting educated. Plenty of information now available regarding vfx unions.]

I think that visual effects professionals should have some type of minimum working conditions and protection. I think project to project workers should get some of the same and continuous benefits as many others in the film business.

We work hard developing our creative and technical skills but it's our business skills that we have a problem with. And even if you do have business skills you're unlikely to have much leverage with a company. Who's watching our backs? Unfortunately if you think your company is always looking out for you then expect a rude surprise.

If all companies were great all the time to their employees, always valued them, treated them well, followed labor laws and work laws, then there would be less need for protection. But as we've seen money is a powerful driving force and companies can change rapidly. R&H was known to treat their employees great but in the end people were laid off without pay and lack of benefits. 

There are a few ways to try to obtain these types protections but very few that have any real leverage necessary to do this well. And one of the main options is a guild so I'll try to provide information in this post and cover the good and bad. I'll touch on possible other options as well.

There still seems to be a lot of misinformation, myths and confusion about what a film type of Guild is.  (Guild and union mean the same thing these days) Many in visual effects have not spent much time on film sets so don’t quite see how this works. And some people seem to be adverse to follow links to union sites for some reason. 

And no guilds, are not perfect, but then again neither is the company you work for or any other company or organization. And please, no “I heard from a friend of a friend who’s cousin…’ stories. For every union story you have, I can provide 10 documented ones for companies. (Wall Street banks, PG&E bonuses, etc) And no, this isn’t about auto unions.

And no, guilds by themselves cannot solve all of the visual effects industries problems. Two of the main things being explored are a Trade Association for the companies (an organization of the companies so they can have some balance in business) and Guilds (an organization of the workers so they can have some balance in business).

I ask that you read this post with an open mind and follow up on some of the references so you can become informed instead of relying on myths. 

By and large everyone working on a major motion picture are in a guild. The director, writers, actors, cinematographers, production designer, costume designer, sound recorder, stunts, special effects, grips, electricians, props, editors, make-up artists, script supervisors, script supervisors, set decorators, scenic artists, hair stylists, their crews, etc. Even the producers have their own guild. Some of the animation companies (Disney, Dreamworks, Sony Animation) are covered by a guild. 

Visual effects is one of the few groups working in the film industry that are not unionized. (Composers is a smaller group that also has not unionized.)

These other guilds all get some type of profit sharing or residuals from the films they work on. Directors, writers and actors get checks based on the success of the film. Most of the below the line union workers get secondary sales (DVDs, etc) residuals with  the studios putting in a % into their health and welfare fund (MPI) to help offset health care costs.

Now think about what visual effects have contributed to the film business. Think of all the top money making films of all time. Think of all the tent pole movies that visual effects have made possible. So why is it that we don’t think we deserve the same protection and benefits as everyone else in film production?

Visual effects actually was unionized before digital. Close Encounters, Star Wars and other visual effects projects were done with union crews. ILM, Pacific Title, Illusion Arts and other shops were union. The short sighted view of the new wave of digital artists didn’t see the point of a guild and so here we are.

History in a nutshell
The IATSE (also known as the IA) - International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees was founded in 1893. It handles most of the below the line crew members and is made up of locals that cover specific crafts and/or areas. 114,000 members

The Directors Guild of America (DGA) was started in 1936 and has 15,000 members. Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was started in 1933 and covers 165,000 actors. Writers Guild of America has roots starting back in 1921.

There are also the Teamsters covering drivers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) covering Electrical Workers, Studio Utility and others.

What is a guild?
A guild is a group of workers who unite to maintain and improve their working experience and conditions. Guilds are used to try to balance the fact the corporations have all the power and may make things very difficult for their workers in spite of the fact the workers are the ones making their product or performing the actual work.

What have unions contributed?
The following is a list of some of the items that have happened because of union involvement. Because workers stood together. These were not simply goodwill from companies or politicians. And what we take all of these for granted today.

1.         Weekends without work
2.         All breaks at work, including your lunch breaks
3.         Paid vacation
4.         Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
5.         Sick leave
6.         Social Security
7.         Minimum wage
8.         Civil Rights Act/Title VII - prohibits employer discrimination
9.         8-hour workday
10.         Overtime pay
11.         Child labor laws
12.         Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA)
13.         40-hour workweek
14.         Workers’ compensation (workers’ comp)
15.         Unemployment insurance
16.         Pensions
17.         Workplace safety standards and regulations
18.         Employer health care insurance
19.         Collective bargaining rights for employees
20.         Wrongful termination laws
21.         Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
22.         Whistleblower protection laws
23.         Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) - prohibits employers from using a lie detector test on an employee
24.         Veteran's Employment and Training Services (VETS)
25.         Compensation increases and evaluations (i.e. raises)
26.         Sexual harassment laws
27.         Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
28.         Holiday pay
29.         Employer dental, life, and vision insurance
30.         Privacy rights
31.         Pregnancy and parental leave
32.         Military leave
33.         The right to strike
34.         Public education for children
35.         Equal Pay Acts of 1963 & 2011 - requires employers pay men and women equally for the same amount of work
36.         Laws ending sweatshops in the United States

Keep in mind the unions helped to establish the middle class of the US. One of the reasons for the stagnant wages over the last 20 years and the skyrocketing CEO wages (going from 30x workers wages to now over 300x the average worker wages) is because unions have been losing ground.


Pros of a film guild
When a film crewmember (from a grip to the director) walks on set they know what is required of them and they know that the others working are professionals.

They know that they don’t have to include most basics in their deal memos since those are already covered by the union contracts.

They know that they will be fed every 6 hours and get correct breaks.

They know labor laws will be followed.

They know that safety laws will be followed.

They know they will be paid for all hours worked, including overtime.

They know the producers can’t suddenly cut their agreed on wages or decide not to pay them.

They know the producers can’t give them a sob story or threaten them to work unpaid hours.

They know they can show up and not be told that the producers decided to cancel the day of shooting and they won’t be paid.

They know that they will be covered by the same health care plan they’ve had and that the hours they are working are counted toward their benefits.

They know they can focus on the work at hand since many of the business aspects are covered by the union.

A Director of Photography knows that when they show up for a full feature film there will be an operator and an assistant so they can do their job right. And so they aren’t stuck doing several positions they had not planned on doing.

They know that if a production company violates any of the agreement, that they and all other union works can report it and the guild will respond accordingly.

They know they have strength in numbers and can stand up to being bullied by the production companies. The representative from their Local is only a phone call away and can help resolve any issues on set.

Here’s the Oscar acceptance speech of cinematography winner Wally Pfister for Inception (He also did the Dark Knight series of films along with a long list of other film projects.)

At the Academy Awards tonight, best cinematography winner Wally Pfister made a point during his acceptance speech of thanking his union crew on “Inception.”

Backstage he went further, expressing shock at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal, which would limit union’s collective bargaining powers. Opponents of the plan have been protesting at the state capitol for 21 days.

“I think that what is going on in Wisconsin is kind of madness right now,” Pfister says. “I have been a union member for 30 years and what the union has given to me is security for my family. They have given me health care in a country that doesn’t provide health care and I think unions are a very important part of the middle class in America all we are trying to do is get a decent wage and have medical care.”

Pros for visual effects workers
Visual effects workers have the same type of pros as the film workers.

Knowing you’re going to be paid for the hours you work.

Knowing you not be misclassified as an independent contractor, salaried employee, technician or many of the other methods companies use to avoid overtime pay or taxes.

Knowing the company won’t be making sweeping changes to everyone’s wages or deal memos. Should that happen the guild will step in and have a discussion with the company.

Benefits on par with many of the other film guilds.

Knowing their benefits won’t be reduced randomly by the company.

Having continuous, portable health care insurance as you move from company to company. Right now you have to start from scratch with each company you work for and wait 90 days before any health care kicks in. And that has to be repeated every time you start at another company. And the union health plans are typically much better than typical company plans.

Having continuous, portable pension plan as you move from company to company. Many companies require 1 year of working before you can even be part of their 401k.

Banking hours for benefits. When you are laid off as a guild member you have likely banked hours above and beyond what was required to cover you. This means you may have a year of health insurance coverage even once you’re laid off. When some of the DreamWorks people were laid off, many of those covered by the Animation Guild had months or more of health care coverage. Those that were non-union had to go onto Cobra insurance plans (expensive) and then will have to switch to personal insurance (very expensive).

Paid time off for illness and vacation.

Knowing companies will have to follow labor laws.

Knowing working conditions will not be an issue for those at workstations. Those on sets and locations will be provided the safety training as required and not be subjected to hazardous working conditions.

As with other guilds they will be provided free or discounted classes to improve their skills.

Being connected to other guilds and film members.

Strength in numbers provides leverage when required.


Cons of a film guild
It’s made up of people
Like any other organization or company, a guild is made up of people who you may not always agree with. You as a member vote on board members and various executives to represent you. Those people are typically working in the specific area just like you. But the majority of votes wins and you may not care for the choices made.

There may be times when legally and technically they can’t do what you’d like. The guild does not run the company so the company is free to make bad decisions. The guild cannot stop outsourcing. Each local may choose to deal with subsidies and other regional bills if their members so choose.

The majority may have different priorities than you do. Typically compromises have to be made in any negotiation.

Yes, like companies, leadership at a specific guild at a specific time period may not be very good. They may make poor decisions or try to rule with a heavy hand. No different than companies or politics. However, unlike companies, you as a member vote on the key leadership.

Dues for many film unions range from a few hundred dollars on up, typically based on your base rate. Dues are likely to be less than your cable bill and with health care and other benefits the cost is very worthwhile. 

Some people think that there should be no dues or that dues should be very cheap. Any real guild has to lease (or buy) a building. They need to pay a basic staff and manager even if board members and some executives are volunteer. Phone, electricity, emails, mailing, etc all have real costs and require people to do them.

Initiation fees
These are for when you first join a guild and can be a few thousand dollars depending on the guild and position. BUT in the case of visual effects companies (or any film production) that unionizes, the guilds waive the fee for those currently working there.  The animation guild (and possibly others) are flexible in terms of the fee. If you’re only working for a short time or have a problem raising the money, they will work with you.

In addition to elected officers there is also a paid staff at guild offices. These people may be involved in getting the newsletter or magazine out, collecting dues, arranging educational events and many other day to day activities. It’s possible these can become heavy with more managers than need be or with higher paid managers than need be. This bloat can be left over from better times, just like some companies.

Benefit coverage
To qualify for benefits (health, pension, etc) you have to work for 600 hrs in a 6 months time period. To continue to qualify you have to put in 400 hrs every 6 months. (These numbers vary with the guilds and negotiations) This can make it rough if you miss the number of hours but you can bank hours so your excess hours accumulate to some degree allowing your benefits to continue for up to a year or so if you’ve been working for a long period of time. It’s also not a lot different than working at a typical company where you’d have to work for 3 months before qualifying and if your hours dropped (part time) or you were laid off your benefits would stop immediately.

Pensions are based on the idea that everyone continues to contribute and they are wisely invested. Sometimes union management may make bad investments with the pension funds. And you'll need to be aware of the exact pension plan. 

There have been state governments and some companies that have caused trouble for union pension plans. Either by not paying into union plans as they are contracted to do or by considering the pension plans their personal piggy bank.

MPI Pensions are wholly employer funded.

Contract Services Trust Fund, which works with a number of the film unions, requires workers to have worked in the last x years to remain on the roster. Companies are encouraged to hire from the roster before hiring non-roster members. But this varies again with the individual local. The roster is a function of the collective bargaining agreement and is subject to negotiations between the employer and the union. In the Animation Guild roster status is given to someone who has worked 30 days in the last two-years. 

Yes, like at any company or organization there may be examples of staff or executives pocketing money. Unions are subject to stringent federal rules regarding finances and have to disclose them accordingly.


The Process
Workers have to be come educated about the guild. The guild cannot force you to read their materials.  For more info directly from the union:

VFX Guild info (world wide)

Their representatives are available via email or phone call for questions that you have that are not covered on their web site.

Workers have to sign rep cards to signify to the guild that they are in fact interested in joining the guild and have it represent them.   VFX Union Rep card

Yes, you have to be currently working for a company otherwise who is the guild organizing? If there were a Trade Association, the guild would bargain with them in order to reach an agreement that covers the artist working at theassociation-member facilities.   (Just like the film studios have their trade associations that works with the guilds). But currently there is no vfx trade association so each company has to be unionized one by one. The same thing would happen for any company not covered by a trade association, assuming there were one.

Once the guild has a majority of rep cards of a given company (usually 60-70%) then they will meet with the company and tell them the majority of workers are requesting to be covered by the guild. The guild does not provide the cards or the names to the company.

Ideally the company would open up dialog with the guild at that point.

By US Federal law an official vote is scheduled where all workers vote on joining a guild.

Now at this point many companies will try to discourage the union from forming by doing a number of things simply to try to retain power. The companies may pump up benefits only for the duration of the union threat and then simply reduce the benefits as soon as they can.

If a majority of the workers vote yes, then negotiations start between the guild and the company.

A committee of workers from within the facility would be formed as the negotiation committee and would help direct the negotiations. They would determine minimum rates for different positions and the various guidelines and contract points. What type of benefits, how good the benefits are and the costs of all these are part of the negotiations. The union and company go back and forth to hammer out the contract.

The contract is voted and approved by the guild workers.

The company is now a union company and the workers who are covered by the guild are now guild members.

If the organizing were done through the IA then those workers would be assigned to the closest matching union local. When there are enough members for a visual effects guild, then a visual effects guild will be put into the works.

If a visual effects guild proper is created (whether through the IA or other mechanism) then visual effects people would be voted on to be on the board or as executives. The visual effects workers would determine what their priorities are and some of how they will be structured (within the restraints of the law and any master union such as the IA.


Myths and misunderstandings
A guild is not the prefect solution.
Some people seem to have it in their mind that there is some magical cure all solution to the ills of the visual effects industry. That we should only attempt for perfect solutions and not bother with anything that doesn’t achieves 100% guaranteed success.

There is no magical 100% solution. Sorry. There are a variety of problems and any solution will only try to solve one aspect. It will take multiple solutions to fix the problems.

A guild only affects the US
No. There are unions, including film unions, around the world.  IATSE has a US group and a Canada group. In the UK they have BECTU which a number of visual effects people in London have declared their interest in. Because they realize they are not being paid for overtime and when they are it’s simply an in lieu situation at regular pay. And they know they, as individuals, cannot change that.

Check the local unions in your area to see about becoming a union member and what the specific pros and cons are there.

That's why this post is called Visual Effects Guilds. 

Should any area of visual effects workers anywhere in the world unionize, then that will be used as a guide and basis for other visual effects workers. Non-union film crews frequently follow many union guidelines. Writers who aren’t covered by the Writers Guild typically try to get similar coverage. It would likely happen in visual effects.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

Guilds are only local to Los Angeles
Each local covers a different but specific union and area. In the case of some guilds they cover the entire US such as the Camera Guild.

A Guild does not guarantee health benefits for life
The guild does not guarantee health coverage beyond banked hours until a member has been in the guild for a long period of time. Here’s the information: MPI offers retiree health benefits after a certain period of time under a union contract.  This benefit is sometimes called "Lifetime Health Coverage" but loosely fits that definition.  Once a member qualifies for Retiree Health coverage (15 "qualified" years (at least 400 hours) in the plans (3 of those must be after age 40) and 20,000 credited hours worked under a union contract).  That retiree coverage acts like active coverage (regular
coverage) until the retired member becomes eligible to participate in Medicare Part B.  The retired member must then join Medicare Part B and MPI will act as secondary coverage.

The union should be a global union
The problem is each country and each region has very different labor laws. And in each of those areas the union has to be adjusted to work within those legal restraints and they have to create contracts with the companies in those regions that are legally binding in those locations.

For all intents and purposes it’s impossible to have a fully global union. So the best that can be done is to have a unions per country or region and ideally have them work together in some form.

If you sign a rep card your employer will know about it.
False. Obviously if you tell them or tell someone who in turn tells them then they will know. But the rep cards are private to the union and are not turned over to the company.

The union will increase the cost for the company by x% and drive them out of business.
It does the union, company and the members no good to increase the costs of the company that will put them out of business. The union will negotiate a contract with a company. The workers and company will have to agree on the contract for it to be finalized. It’s in all of their best interest to work out something that works for all of them. If a company (or studio) is making large profits then the result will be different than a very small company with low profit margins.

The guilds have been flexible and have adjusted to reality television as well as independent films. SAG has short film, ultra low budget, and other agreements based on the size and type of production. Edward Burns shot a $9,000 film with SAG actors. The IA has special adjustments as well. 

The union health plans are usually superior to most company plans. And the benefits also include pension, sick pay and vacation.  The IA itself has multiple health care insurance plans so an alternative could be selected based on the cost factors for the specific company. It’s possible in negotiations that members be willing to trim their wages slightly to help obtain a better health care plan that is portable. Likely to be much more affordable than  paying Cobra or individual insurance.

Now if the company you work for provides no benefits or overtime pay, then yes, it will cost the company more. But if you work for such a company you are helping to finance them just like they are in turn helping to finance the film because they chose not to bid the project correctly. You have to deduct all the extra costs of your own benefits and all the unpaid overtime (illegal it should be noted) to find out what your rate really is. You’ve been foregoing what all others in film unions get and are giving up what comes with most full time jobs.

Unionizing will cause all work to go elsewhere
Much depends on the financial impact to the companies and the studios. See the note above. That impact could be very little.

The entire visual effects work being done in the US and Canada cannot be simply sent to low cost areas tomorrow. If it was that simple the studios would already be doing it. There is not enough capacity even in the places that have subsidies to do all the work. If the UK were to unionize tomorrow it would likewise be difficult to get all of that work up and running elsewhere.

This would be especially true if a number of companies were unionized in a short period of time.

The unions aren’t stopping outsourcing
The unions typically don’t get involved in fighting the huge political lobbying arms of the studios and politicians. It’s a very tough and expensive battle and has no basis for logic or facts. So the IA has no involvement in subsidies. Each local has their choice of how they wish to use their funds. And a particular local may choose to be pro or con a specific government bill, including subsidies.

We’re artists, not mechanics. We don’t need a union
This is a common phrase. So why are directors, writers, production designers, cinematographers, etc all covered by guilds? Why are many musicians, including those in orchestras, covered by unions?

Staff workers don’t need to be in the union
Hopefully one of the things that have become obvious is there are no guaranteed jobs. A business can change, it can downsize, and it can declare bankruptcy. Everyone working in visual effects should consider themselves freelance like all of the film crewmembers. You may be fortunate to be working for a longer period of time at one place but that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed employment. Some people who have been at ILM over 20 years have been laid off. Things change.

The union makes it so you can’t fire or lay off anyone. They guaranteed permanent jobs.
I can only assume this comes from in reference to the teachers tenure. Some people think this would force visual effects companies to retain their entire crew. The fact is union workers are laid off all the time. All film crewmembers are laid off when they complete their task on a film.

As a union member there has to be cause to fire someone. At some point you may work for a manager or boss that will fire anyone for any reason at any time. Now they will need a valid reason to do so but otherwise union members can be fired or laid off.

We don’t deserve it
Oddly I hear this as well. "We’re so well paid we should be covering all of our expenses out of pocket including benefits and pension". And therefore we also don’t need a balance of power with the company. Do you think everyone else in the film business is underpaid and that you’re overpaid? Do you really think you don’t deserve benefits like other film workers and like most full time jobs?

Many professional athletes are covered by unions. Are they all under paid?

A guild cannot cover the range of jobs we do
ILM had local 16 in the San Francisco Bay Area that covered everyone. Camera, physical model builders, stage crews, etc. No problem.  A guild can cover all the people that it decides to. Now if you’re a roto person and are now supervising, of course the union will expect you to paid for the correct classification.  

A union won’t cover me because of my job type
The union can cover any worker at any job as long as the worker is willing to be covered and it’s not an issue with the Labor Relations Board. If there is a job category that isn’t currently covered then a majority of those people in that job category should sign the rep cards so they can be covered.

A guild prevents people from doing things on set
Some people are worried the unions are too protective of certain things like touching things on set or doing something outside their scope.

Let’s take a look for why that is:
Example: You move a light and it falls and hurts someone. Who’s at fault?
You move a light and the shot is ruined. Who’s at fault?

You have a transit or Lidar system setup and are partway through doing a survey of the location and someone else from a different department moves that without asking. How well does that go over with you?

There’s a reason why each department oversees their equipment and it’s usage. Because they are responsible for it. They know what they're doing and how to do it safely.

Let’s suppose a Director of Photography shows up on set and the production company tells them that they cut the budget for the camera crew and the DP now has to load, unload the camera, handle the focus and operate the camera in addition to lighting. Now the DP has to handle several jobs beyond what they signed up for and not being able to give their full attention to what they’re supposed to be doing. That could be one way a production company would try to save money.

Let’s suppose someone from wardrobe brought in his or her HDLR. The producer could say great, you stand over here and shoot this scene as well. The wardrobe person is likely paid less than the DP or operator so it’s a cost incentive for the producer. Who’s responsible for the results? How well is that supposed to match the quality and look of the rest of the film?

There are reasons for most of the union rules and guidelines. Safety and responsibility are just a couple. Without them producers would put a lot of pressure on people to do the work for less, to do multiple jobs even if they aren’t responsible for them and from there things spiral downward. When you’re on a professional film that is costing millions if not 10’s of millions of dollars, it’s not cost effective to be trying to save nickels and dimes, which in the end cost you a full day of shooting.

The union doesn’t know about visual effects
Neither does your lawyer. Neither does the film producer.
Do you know about negotiation a union contract? Unlikely. So let’s take the best skills, knowledge and experience of both groups. A guild will have to work with those in visual effects to find out what they want to achieve, what the issues are and how high of priority they are. They will have to work together to vet any agreements.

And the unions will need to up their game to help educate people about what a union is, how it works and they will have to sell the very notion of the union to those who have not been in one.

Guilds are out of date
As noted earlier unions and guilds have helped a middle class to exist in the US and many other countries. It’s why you get weekends off and most people get a 40hr week and why there are safety standards. It’s why much of that is vanishing now and why corporations are now ruling the nation. Who challenges them? Not the politicians who gladly accept their money.

Union people are out of date
Most of the guilds have training classes or offer some education discounts.
The Camera Guild held a series of Stereoscopic Camera learning session at Sony for at least 1 or 2 years. They helped all forms of not only camera members but also producers and directors take the course and get up to speed on the usage, terms and equipment needed to shoot a film in stereo.

The Camera Guild has training classes on the latest camera gear, which is important given the speed of changing digital camera systems. They work with the camera companies and cover LED lighting and cover rigging classes for those who work on Broadway musicals.

The Camera Guild also added Digital Imaging Technician to the jobs they represent and have data handling classes

The Animation Guild has educational coverage and discounts.

Trade association is the solution to everything
A trade association will be a good thing but it, like a union, cannot fix everything.
First, a trade association has to be created. There have been attempts for over 15 years. Maybe this time it will finally happen.
Second, it will take awhile for it to be formed. Same issues as forming a union from scratch.
Third, the companies have to agree on what needs to be done and they have to implement it. That will take time.
Fourth, a trade association is for the companies, not the workers. It’s goal is for the companies to be profitable and improve their situation.

Healthy companies can help to make a healthy industry but that doesn’t necessarily improve all situations for the workers.

Studios are profitable but that doesn’t mean they give the film unions all they want. Typically when the contract is up they reduce what the unions already have and it’s up to the unions to re-negotiate.

GE made a profit of $14 billion a couple of years ago and received a tax refund of over $3 billion. Yet they still asked their employees to take wage cuts. 

Assuming every company will do what's best for the workers is a flawed notion. 

A trade association needs to form first
That might be ideal but see the above topic. That could take awhile and companies continue to drag their feet. One of the advantages of a guild forming now is it might compel the companies to get moving and to setup a trade association.

It’s the wrong time to unionize
This is like saying it’s raining so it’s the wrong time to fix the roof and when it’s not raining saying that there’s no point because it’s not leaking now. When time are good people think they don’t need protection and all the benefits. When time are bad and then they’re laid off, then they think different but unfortunately then it’s too late.

There is only one perfect time and that is now. 

We should have unionized years ago
Woulda, shoulda, coulda. The past is gone. Unless you have a functioning time machine the only thing we have now is the present.

There is only one perfect time and that is now. 

Guilds set the amount people get paid
No, guilds set the minimum wages for different job positions covered by the guild. There is no cap. Most film crewmembers make above scale because they negotiate more.

Guilds determine job position
Much depends on the particular union and job but if an employer is willing to pay you at the full job position rate (higher than you already hold) then the union is unlikely to try to prevent that.

Union members can’t work for non-union productions
This is dependent on the union itself. The Animation Guild has no such restrictions and allows members to go onto non-union projects and even enables them to reduce or hold on their dues during this time period.

Guilds should allow you to join even when not employed
So who is the guild bargaining with on your behalf? If you’re unemployed and not in a union you will have to be working for a company that can be unionized or is already union.

The Guild should negotiate with the studios and not the visual effects companies
You as a visual effects worker likely work for a visual effects company. They are your employer, they determine your working conditions, they determine when you work and they pay you. None of this is handled by the studios since a visual effects company is likely a third party company. Even when studios have a visual effects company it may be structured such that the studio vfx company is the one to negotiate and not the studio itself.

The unions are only interested in dues
There are plenty of people who want into the film business so getting people interested in joining the standard film unions is not a problem. A large number of people get into the unions every year.

You pay no dues until there is negotiated contract with the company that is approved by the members and you are an official union member.

Guild workers are lazy
Come to a real film set and see it in action. When each member has to get something done they move quickly because they know it’s their job. Try being a camera assistant on a large feature film. Lazy is not the word to use.

The union gets you work
There are some unions that offer union halls where people can post jobs. There are no film unions I know of that get film workers work. It’s up to each person to find their own work.

Guilds strike or don’t strike
There’s some confusion about how strikes work and some people like the idea of using them and some don’t want them. Some of the people are confused about the notion that the union can’t strike while they have a contract.

Would you hire a contractor and have a contract with them if they could simply stop working at any point and ask for more, beyond what was in the contract? No you probably wouldn’t. The union contract is with a company and each have to follow it. Usually IA contracts are for 3 years. At that point if there have been new developments or things outside the scope of the existing contract then those will have to be negotiated.

A film union strike happens when the contract has expired and the majority of the members of the union vote for a strike. Usually this only happens if negotiations fail. A strike may happen if a company stops paying wages and is unwilling to correct it. A strike may also happen if the majority of workers have signed rep cards and the production company is unwilling to meet with the guild.  If the workers don’t vote for it or a contract is still valid, it won’t happen. The board of directors cannot authorize a strike without approval of the members.

Unions should be more flexible
There are specific legal requirements that require a union to behave in certain ways or to structure things in a specific way. Just as a public company has certain obligations to shareholders and their legal requirements to operate in a specific manner.

And some of the process is governed by experience based on realities of negotiations, not on wishful thinking.

Methods of forming a Guild

Going with IATSE
Fast to unionize. As soon as rep cards are signed the unionizing process can start.
The IATSE covers most of the below the line crew members (Camera, Art, Wardrobe, etc)
They have a structure already setup.
They have union experts and lawyers.
They have multiple health benefit packages.
They have expressed interest in handling visual effects workers.
They have the Animation Guild which covers animators and compositors among others.
They can absorb visual effects workers into the closest guild local until they can establish a full visual effects guild.
A visual effects guild would allow connection with the animation guild and likely other guilds.
An IATSE established visual effects guild would be connected with all other IA guilds.
The IA is already established and has a connection with all the other non-IA guilds in film production (DGA, WGA, SAG, etc)
The IA is already recognized by the studios and takes part in their own negotiations.

They’re a large organization so we’d want to make sure to have a voice.

Since they’ve been in business a long time they may have residual structure and overhead not appropriate now.

Some people have told me that it shouldn’t be with the IA. Unfortunately they either can’t remember why or are unwilling to talk about the specifics.

Let’s be clear again. No union will be perfect. A person may have been with a local that didn’t do what they should have. Or it could be the person didn’t understand what the union could and could not do. Just as if you might rate something on Yelp or Amazon, there are some people who give a union a 5 star rating and likely some that may give the specific local 1 star rating. And those that give them 1 star ratings are likely more vocal. There are some products and services I could give Apple 5 stars and some I would give 1 star. Doesn’t mean I won’t consider their products in the future.

So if you have had a problem with the IA or other union you should contact them and discuss the issues. You should be clear as to what happened and why it happened. If you have had good or bad experiences (with factual information), then you should write it up for others.

Going with IBEW
Same basics as the IATSE.
They had earlier meetings with visual effects workers and have indicated their interest in visual effects coverage.
600,000 members (they cover much more than just film and TV work)

Many of the same as IATSE
Much less film coverage than IATSE

Starting Visual Effects Guild from scratch
Setup exactly what visual effects workers want
No legacy structure or overhead
Independence in negotiating with companies and studios

Starting a guild from scratch is a very costly and time consuming process.
Lawyers would need to be hired or some type of arrangement would be needed to get the ball rolling.
Bylaws and all other structures would have to be worked out and defined from scratch.
No experience union reps so either lot of mistakes will be made or guild will need to hire some experienced union people to help setup and run the guild.
Will have to go through whatever legal requirements are to qualify with state and federal government.
And that includes Canada (like IATSE) (and other countries) if we wish and it’s legal.
Will have to be recognized by other guilds, companies and studios.
Will have to hire a full staff of people to deal with membership.
Problem of the cart and horse. Would have to establish a guild first but who will be doing the work and getting the money? Will vfx workers sign rep cards for this brand new guild?

Global Guild
As already covered trying to have a legal guild that works everywhere in the world at this point is impossible. Best to setup each area and work together.

Freelancers Union
This is a union for freelancers of all different types of jobs to get health care.
The downside is this only supplies health care insurance. And even then it’s only applicable in 3 states.
There are no contracts or agreements with companies or employers. There is no protection for working or being paid.


A Hybrid that’s not a union
This is one of the things people put forward,. They want health care, working conditions, minimums, and collective bargaining. What they’ve just described is a real union.
In the US a group that has collective bargaining is a union. Any group that doesn’t, isn’t a union. That puts great restrictions on exactly what this ‘hybrid’ would be able to accomplish.

They could ask for things from companies and studios but without a legal contract it would be very difficult to make any headway.

They could vote on a group working at a particular company to strike but would all workers do it? And if they did, who works out the contracts with the company? It would still have to be up to each individual to work out their own deal (as it is today) because there is no group that has collective bargaining.

VES (Visual Effects Society)
The VES is an organization of vfx professionals and can provide education and some guidance but since there are no business connection between the VES and companies or studios, there is very little leverage the VES can do as it relates to business.The can educate and they can try to get the various parties to discuss issues.  For the VES to become a guild or a trade association it would need to close it’s doors on existing members and re-open as a totally different entity.


Hopefully this helped answer some questions and provide more info about film guilds. Below are links to even more information. Send email directly to the union reps if you have further questions.

The guilds are not perfect but it really is one of the only options workers have to try to turn around the industry.  As I posted yesterday, provide your solution if you have a better idea.

Workers can continue to do nothing but hope that they will continue to have jobs and benefits. They can hope someone solves all the problems and they can hope a trade association forms and solve all the problems. But they shouldn’t be surprised when their jobs and benefits disappear.

Workers can choose to leave the industry and try to make a living in some other field.

Or workers can choose to actually do something such as joining a union. That way in 5 years you don’t have to say, we should have done it 5 years ago. It’s a way to have a voice. It’s a way to signal to the companies and the studios that the visual effects workers are united and that we would like to be treated like the rest of the film crew. It’s a way to start getting portable health benefits, pensions and other benefits.

If instead of a visual effects company if this were a film studio would you be reluctant to join? If your visual effects company is owned by a large corporation making large profits would you be reluctant to join?

We want respect in the industry but we don't even have enough respect for ourselves to ask for what every other film crew member already has. We as the workers are the visual effects industry. If we unite we have strength. If we wish to squabble and go it alone, we will continue to be at the mercy of others and the ones to bear the brunt of decisions outside of our control.

Is fear driving the reluctance of visual effects professionals to join a guild or is it simply apathy?  It’s time for all visual effects workers to have the courage and take a stand to get the process started. It starts with you, not someone else.

If you choose to join the union please get in your rep card to start the process.

[Update 5/28/13  Recently had yet another discussion with some one on a blog regarding a vfx guild.

My summary:
1. Educate yourself. Google vfx union, go to the vfx union website, go to the links provided.
(If you read the rest of this post you're already further than most people)

2. If you still have questions about the guild then go ahead and contact the guild directly. There are email and phone#s available on their site. It's a simple matter to send in your question and get an answer.

3. Details and schedule - Asking for details, exact steps and schedules is as useful as asking when a vfx graduate will get work, where they will be working, what position and what they will be paid. There is no step by step and there is no schedule. Nobody can answer that.

In both cases it depends on the individual to: 1 Educate themselves (check job listings for someone looking for work, read about guilds for vfx professionals). 2. Take the first step. A graduate has to submit their resume and reel if they wish to start the process. A vfx professional has to sign a union rep card if they wish to start the process. Therefore much depends on the individual to make the effort. Sitting on the couch waiting for a job or the union to come to you will not work.

4. Some people think they should able to sign rep cards even when unemployed. That somehow the union is being closed and inflexible. What would be the point to accept unemployed workers?

For the worker it would simply mean that they would be paying dues with nothing in return. Dues do not cover benefits (health, vacation, etc). That's why there is a negotiation with the company to have them pay some or all benefits. There are negotiated restrictions on how workers qualify for benefits.

If you're unemployed there is no one for the union to negotiate with.

Most film unions are not hiring halls so it's not likely unemployed workers will get a call about jobs from the union.

From the unions stand point there's no point in getting a lot of unemployed people into the union. Sure they could make money with the dues but they can't pay for benefits. Most dues are much less than health care insurance, much less pension, vacation and other benefits.

Unemployed workers who have never been union qualified doesn't provide any leverage for the union.

Flooding the members list with unemployed workers doesn't help any of the other members.

Federal laws and negotiated contracts are likely to make it impossible to unionized unemployed workers.

(Tip: Sign a rep card WHILE you are employed. Don't complain later when you're unemployed.)

5. There is no big conspiracy that the union is doing this to simply get dues. People that complain about this don't tend to take offense at Wall Street crashing the international financial system or with CEO's making tens of millions at the workers expense, but mention the union and they're sure to try to ferret out every detail of every deal.

6. It's been almost 3 1/2 years since the Open Letter went out to James Cameron. People who say a union or trade association is too late said the same thing 3 1/2 years ago. They said the same thing 15 years ago. So where are we now? How did not going union stop outsourcing? How did not going union help with stable jobs? If you're currently out of work think back 3 1/2 years ago. Are you better off today? Maybe NOW is the time to start so that that in 3 1/2 years years from now people aren't saying the exact same thing.

7. Freelance - For some reason people still get hung up on the concept of freelance and how that doesn't allow them as freelance vfx workers to join a union. The entire film industry is made up of freelance people. This is nothing new. Those people who freelance on films, commercials and most TV shows are all union and work freelance.  Now if your vfx company is making you work as an independent contractor realize that it is likely illegal to be classified as such. Are you working at their premises, do you have to be there at certain times, do they tell you what to do? If so, you're an employee.

Independent Contractor vs employee Basic Test
 Independent Contractor vs employee ref

In that case have a discussion with management or report them for violation. As long as workers turn a blind eye to labor law violations, the conditions for the workers (including yourself) will erode.

8. If you have alternate solutions or ideas- post them. If you have an issue with the IA or other union (personally and documented) then post them.


Dave Rand talks of artists getting scr*wed and what the union provides 

Here's another Variety article just today:  Trouble at Newbreed VFX Cementing Montreal’s Bad Rep

More information
VFX Guild info (world wide)

Great book on how the Animation Guild formed. History repeats itself. Very worth reading if you're interested in the union.
Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson

VFXSoldier Blog posts

Effects Corner Blog posts

Animation Blog

Some of the film unions
Animation Guild

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What’s the solution?

What’s the solution?

In my PI VFX Town Hall talk I listed many of the problems of the visual effects industry.

Too much competition
Broken business model
Massive Overtime
Unpaid Overtime, broken labor laws
Health Care

I also listed a number of possible solutions with their pros and cons.

Possible solutions
Making our own content
Residuals and royalties
Working for the studios
Post-production supervision
Global working conditions
Trade association
Visual Effects Guild

None of these are perfect and none solve all the industry problems.

Solution to these problems will take involvement of the workers, the companies and the studios themselves even though none of those groups seem to be particularly eager to attempt to solve the problems.

Yet I continue to see posts, tweets, etc that there must be other solutions. Solutions that are perfect and that solve everything. People have stated they are working on solutions and will be releasing these new solutions any day now.

And yet they still have not provided them.

Finding problems with proposals and criticizing is the easiest thing a person can do. How about people actually make suggestions of a solution?

John Berton, another visual effects supervisor, reminded me of what Chuck Jones has said:

 Because this was not a brainstorming session in the usual sense, it was a “yes” session, not an “anything goes” session. Anything went, but only if it was positive, supportive, and affirmative to the premise.  No negatives were allowed…. 
The “yes” session imposes only one discipline: the abolition of the word “no”.
…if you find you cannot contribute, then silence is proper, but it is surprising how meaty a little old stringy “yes” (which is another name for a premise) can become in as little as fifteen or twenty minutes, when everyone present unreservedly commits his immediate impulsive and positive response to it…A good premise always generates the most astonishing results.
Jones, Chuck. Chuck Amuck: The life and times of an animated cartoonist. New York: Chuck Jones Enterprises, inc. , 1989. pp 150 – 152.

Rather than focusing on every negative of every proposal and ending up with nothing, review the positive aspects of the options and proceed to choose the best ones.

So please step forward and provide your solution. Your answer.

If you don’t have one then consider the positives of the various solutions suggested here and elsewhere and support those.

Related posts

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Visual Effects Professionals United

Visual Effects Professionals United

[Update: 4-12-2013 I've adjusted the page a bit.

The VES has a project in process and one of those has to do with the workforce. I've been tasked with trying to gather feedback from professionals about their wants and needs. Since I had already written and posted this I thought it was right in line.

I'm hoping to also do a survey in the next week.
Please take this survey regarding your working conditions
(I plan to wrap the survey during 1st week of May so be sure to fill it out now)

[Survey has been done and the results are here: Visual Effects Working Conditions Survey ]

[I've included some comments at the end of this post from some of the survey results already.]

PLEASE contribute your thoughts. People keep asking what's supposed to happen next and why isn't someone doing something. Now it's your turn to do something. Submit your ideas and thoughts.


As individuals in the visual effects industry each one of us has very little control over our work experience. The choice is to talk to management and hope they will be willing to make changes or to quit and hopefully find another company that has similar views of work and life as you do.

Most companies are driven by profits and they’re driven even more these days by squeezing workers and vendors as much as possible. The visual effects companies are put in difficult situations by the studios, which in turn puts pressure on the workers to accept less than ideal working conditions.

Even when management may be trying to balance profits and worker experience, new management or an adjustment of business conditions may change that for the worse.

At this point there are visual effects professionals around the world doing great work, each of us connected by the work that we do and the love of what we do. We’re a global community. You can certainly extend that out to cover as much as you consider. (film, TV, commercials, animation, video games, motion graphics, etc)

What we need to do is unite in some form so we can work together to help stabilize and improve the visual effects industry.

One aspect of that is to come up with a work experience document. This would include working conditions and a code of conduct for workers and companies. This would make sure there is a minimum working base for all visual effects workers, including yourself, around the world. This would help to make sure no professionals have to deal with poor working conditions. This would mean if you have to go work half way around the world you won’t find yourself working under poor working conditions.

Many companies may already be doing most of these things and others may be doing very few of them.

Here’s my proposal
Consider what you would think is important at work that could be used as a basis of employment around the world. Post your notes in the comments or form groups with others from work or through the internet.

Let’s compile the list and have a group refine it and put it into written form that the majority agree on.

So what’s the purpose of this?

This would provide a goal or target of what we as professionals would like to achieve when all the current possible solutions are explored and implemented.

This document could be starting point and could reduce the research and exploration time required by some of the potential groups.

If / when there is a visual effects trade association then this could be used as a guideline for what we would expect from the companies and studios involved.

If / when there are visual effects unions, this could be used as a guideline for what we would expect from the union. Existing unions could review and see how it fits into their current structure. These are items of interest to visual effects professionals.

This would be a guide for any visual effects company about what they should be providing if they wish to retain the best workers.

Companies could volunteer to sign on to the guideline if they adhere to it. These companies would be posted on a list on the internet so workers would know which companies support this measure. Those who support it would likely get more higher level work applicants. And they would be monitored in case the company did not follow through on the guidelines.

This would provide a guideline for critiquing or rating a visual effects company on places like  There's also glassdoor

Workers at a given company could consider going as a united group to their employer and discussing the differences and what could be done to accomplish the list.

You as an individual could discuss with management or include in your deal memo all or part of the guideline.  A deal memo is a written employment agreement that covers your job title, rate, start, end dates and other details. VFX Deal Memo

Global nature
I understand that some countries or areas may not require all of these things but I think we should come up with minimums that can and should be implemented world wide. Even though a country may not have any laws saying the exits must be clearly marked and doors unlocked, I think we should include such specifics. Otherwise if it simply boils down to whatever local labor and safety laws dictate then none of this means anything. Around the world those laws are being broken already.

Simply having a document that  only says follow local labor and safety laws does not accomplish anything.

Examples of some of the items that might be include (these are made up numbers. You’ll want to come up with the values)

Working conditions
Meet or exceed local health and safety laws. (This should not be required but of course companies don’t all comply even when required to. There are still fires and other tragedies around the world that happen due to companies skimping on safety or trying to save $1.)

Temperatures to be at nominal room temps in the work area. (72-80 degrees) (Once again the type of thing you may not consider but even here on the west coast at a large vfx company they have been working at 85 or hotter. Some areas are much worse.)

Ventilation – Reasonable ventilation along with heating and cooling to maintain a room temperature.

Sound – No loud noises. No workers playing any audio above x db.

Drinking water within a reasonable distance (100 feet)

Working restrooms

Ergo working space – specs of basic chair, monitor, etc. To avoid carpal tunnel and other physical ailments.

No smoke or fumes in the workplace.

Meet or exceed local labor laws. (This should not be required but of course companies don’t all comply even what they are required to. Many companies misclassify or avoid existing labor laws.)

Adhere to a timely payment in full on a weekly basis.

Correct classification of workers. (ie. not classifying workers in a way that causes them to lose government protections, to avoid overtime payments and taxes. Independent contractors, ‘staff’, ‘flat’,‘salaried’,’managers’,technicians, etc)

No unpaid interns doing production work.

No unpaid students doing production work.

Food break every 6 hours for ½ hr minimum.

15 minute break every 3 hours.

No paying to work, including paying for training.

Clear deal memo for all workers specifying pay, hours, start and end dates, etc.

No withholding of training fees, moving fees, etc.

Work shall be non-abusive (we are professionals)
No screaming
No bullying
No sexual harassment
No beatings

All hours worked (approved or requested) shall be paid by the company.

Overtime will be paid at x rate above 8 hours, y rate above 12 hours.
(Yes, I understand that not all countries have such laws or rates in place. Let’s either try to get in some reasonable minimums or at least make this section variable with different grade levels. Grade A for the company if it complies. B if it only does for x. F if it provides no compensation for overtime.)

Ability to turn down overtime work without dismissal or retribution.

 x hours notice before being assign overtime.

Cap of x hours in a day, y hours in a week.

Turnaround time
Minimum of 12 hours from time of checking out before starting to work again.

Health care
If the local government does not supply health care coverage then the company will provide x minimum.

We can't put in things like permanent jobs.
Lets focus on the real issues.
For now let's not deal with wages themselves, let's focus on the working experience.

Please feel free to add in the comments or as I stated groups in different areas could start developing a defined list of what they feel is important. This could be an item to discuss at one of the vfx townhall meetings in the future. If a group wants to take this and run with it so much the better.

What are the things that are important to you and that all vfx professionals should have in their workplace?

What are the things you feel are missing from your workplace?

What are your hot button issues?
Not being paid OT?
Too much OT?
Not having demo material?
Being misclassified?
Forced to travel?

and write up specifics in the comments below (click on Comments link if you don't see a list of comments). You can do so anonymously.  I'm hoping to get survey results and feedback by May 1 or soon there after.

If you have ideas beyond just the workers that applies to the whole industry then consider posting comments on the  What's The Solution? post

Here's the original post about this concept:
Global VFX Workers

Reference for what might be included beyond what might be obvious would be to review local labor laws to see what they mandate. California Labor Laws example  World wide list of labor laws

The various film unions contracts provide good guidelines for what should be included. Many non-union productions and writers still adhere to union guidelines even when they themselves are not.
Animation Guild contracts  Film union contracts

The various organizations that deal with worker rights world wide provide a good reference.

FLA - Fair Labor Association

FLA Code of Conduct

FLA Complete code and benchmarks

Frame of reference:

FLA is in use by HP and Apple in China and other locations.

Here's their HOURS OF WORK section:
"Employers shall not require workers to work more than the regular and overtime hours allowed by the law of the country where the workers are employed. The regular work week shall not exceed 48 hours. Employers shall allow workers at least 24 consecutive hours of rest in every seven-day period. All overtime work shall be consensual. Employers shall not request overtime on a regular basis and shall compensate all overtime work at a premium rate. Other than in exceptional circumstances, the sum of regular and overtime hours in a week shall not exceed 60 hours."

"Calculation Basis for Overtime Payments
  1. Employers shall compensate workers for all hours worked. 
  1. C.7.1  The factory shall comply with all applicable laws, regulations and procedures governing the payment of premium rates for work on holidays, rest days, and 
  2. C.7.2  Employees shall be compensated for overtime hours at such premium rate as is 
    legally required in the producing country. 
C.7.2.1 In those countries where there is no legally established overtime
premium, employees shall be compensated for overtime hours at the prevailing industry premium rate or at the internationally recognized overtime rate, whichever is higher.
C.7.3 Employers shall not set production targets, piecework, or any other incentive or production system at such a level that the payment for overtime work performed is less than the premium pay required by law or the FLA Workplace Code.
  1. C.8  Overtime Wage Awareness 
    Workers shall be informed, orally and in writing, in language(s) spoken by workers about overtime wage rates prior to undertaking overtime."
"Forced Overtime
The imposition of overtime where workers are unable to leave the work premises constitutes forced labor. "

[ Think of it- 60 hrs maximum in most of the world as defined by some of the largest companies.]

EICC - Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition

EICC Code of Conduct

"Working Hours
  1. Studies of business practices clearly link worker strain to reduced productivity, increased turnover and increased injury and illness. Workweeks are not to exceed the maximum set by local law. Further, a workweek should not be more than 60 hours per week, including overtime, except in emergency or unusual situations. Workers shall be allowed at least one day off per seven-day week. 
  2. 4)  Wages and Benefits 
    Compensation paid to workers shall comply with all applicable wage laws, including those relating to minimum wages, overtime hours and legally mandated benefits. In compliance with local laws, workers shall be compensated for overtime at pay rates greater than regular hourly rates. Deductions from wages as a disciplinary measure shall not be permitted. The basis on which workers are being paid is to be provided in a timely manner via pay stub or similar documentation. "

Visual Effects Society Bill of Rights
VES Bill of Rights

Ergonomics and safety (see computer)

Apple Code of Conduct  (imagine if companies and studios had to follow some of these)

Overtime around the world

Kronos report on Overtime violations

"Paul DeCamp, national chair, wage and hour practice, Jackson Lewis LLP, and former Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division
"Seeing that significant numbers of employees around the world believe their employers have violated overtime laws should serve as a wake-up call to employers everywhere. If your employees perceive that you are out of compliance, you are at risk for a wage-and-hour lawsuit which can be incredibly costly even if you are ultimately found to be in compliance. Investment in wage and hour compliance should be seen as part of risk management for any smart business."

For Trade Association reference
Kansas Code of Ethics for Certified Arborists

"14. I will not compete with another arborist on the basis of charges for work by underbidding through reduction of his quoted fee after being informed of the fee quoted by a competitor."

Google the topic of interest and you'll find plenty of information.

Related Posts
Global VFX Workers