Wednesday, May 22, 2013

VFX/Anim/CG Labor issues Q & A

As a follow up to my previous post asking questions regarding the trade association and union the "Scott's" (Scott Squires and Scott Ross) are trying to build...

I have created a second posting here with a simplified Q & A using the comments and responses from Scott Squires for easy reading.  

I originally posed these questions in a way to make it easy for someone to offer some real answers and change people's minds on the topics.  

Here I have trimmed out any of the discussion about the current state of affairs (which we all understand) and only put the factual answers as responses, below.  If you would like to read the correspondence in it's entirety, click here.

This Q & A does not directly answer every question, but at least when I sit at a table full of artists, producers and tool makers who are discussing the current situation, I am armed with some answers and accurate information.

Angie Jones - How can a union for VFX be effective when VFX/CG/Anim facilities are located all over the world and have their own rules regarding creating or developing unions? 

Specifically, I would like to know how a union here in the US could compete with studios overseas who may or may not have unions who hire non-union workers for their shows?

Scott Squires - Yes, facilities are all over the world. The only rules governing the unions are government rules, not rules from the studios or facilities.

A guild will not fix those problems. Those are issues controlled by governments. The guild can provide more protection for the workers so they don't get dropped without pay and some of the other things have been happening in vfx.

Angie Jones - How can a trade organization enforce any regulations when an American movie studio can simply incorporate overseas to avoid any American laws or taxes against runaway production?  Even better, American movie studios could just buy cruise ships and sail to wherever the money is... and incorporate there.

Scott Squires - The Trade association is for the vfx companies. What if all the top vfx companies companies agreed on a given business model? Such as cost plus? Then the companies no longer have to underbid and go out of business. With a majority of the companies on board where are the studios going to go for their tentpole movies? They can't simply farm it all out to 10 man crews around the world. And that's a different solution/issue than subsidies.

Angie Jones - Not really an answer here and a lot of "what ifs..." Maybe Scott Ross can offer more on this Q one day?

Angie Jones - Even if a union were to succeed somehow (see Q #1) what exactly would this union do about the 1,000's of workers who are no longer employed and cannot join the ranks because they are not working as a formal employee at a facility.  

How do you create a solidarity of  a work force when no one is working... or worse, those working are forced to take jobs as mis-classified contract freelance workers for smaller studios because those are the only studios hiring domestically?  

BTW, if you are not a legal employee, you cannot join a union.  I would say 75-80% of my colleagues are freelance contractors and although employed, are not a w-2 employee of any facility.  Where is the workforce?

Scott Squires - It doesn't make sense for non-employed people to be in a union. Who is the union bargaining with? How are the contributions and benefits being paid for? I also believe there are laws in place that you have to be employed. Not every thing a union does or can do is of their own choosing. There are very specific federal laws about what they can and can not do.

Freelance contractors- Film crews are made up of freelance people. However that doesn't mean they can't unionize. They're all in the union. T
here is no vfx union. There are no companies signed on as union companies for vfx work. If and when vfx workers decide they wish to unionize they could do so. They could freelance and go from job to job and not have to worry about being paid or about benefits.

To go union all you need is for 50% of the workers to sign rep cards (anonymously) . Doesn't matter if the company has 10 people or 1000 people. The ones currently working that would qualify for a vfx union (contractor, w2, whatever) have to sign rep cards. If they had already done so in the number required, the company would be union already. 

Angie Jones - So, if you are unemployed and in between jobs, you cannot sign a card.  Once you are employed again, you can sign a card, even if you are a 1099 freelance contract employee.  I was under the impression for some reason you had to be a legal employee of a facility (read: staff employee on the books) to sign a card.  I know I am not the only one who thought this, so hopefully this helps clear things up.

Angie Jones - How about a breakdown of exactly what people get for signing a card?

Scott Squires -That's all written up in my post on the vfx guild. 
send in a email to for details not found at the sites.

1. People submit signed rep cards.
2. When the union get's a large percentage (60% or more) then they contact management and tell them that the majority of their workers want to be union.
3. Hopefully the company agrees and works out a deal. This deal will involve the people who voted to go union to provide guidance.
4. If not, then by federal law there is a vote.
5. If the vote is yes then the company is union and all working there that can be covered by the union are now union. The union works out a contract with those who voted helping to work out the terms of what they want.
6. Any shop that unionizes, the people currently working there pay no initiation fee.
7. Union people pay their dues (few hundred typically but depends on your category and wages).

If enough workers in vfx unionize then the IA will set up a separate IA local just for vfx. Until that time the closest matching union will be the temporary home. If a new union is formed then members will vote on who to represent them from fellow members.

Angie Jones - I was under the impression Union Dues were two months salary, not a couple hundred dollars... but I guess it's cheaper than I thought?  I paid more than a couple hundred dollars a month to the VES every year and I am not sure what I got for that money.

Angie Jones - - How would a trade organization go about lobbying to get subsidies to end? Specifically, how would they do this?  My father worked in the apparel industry and I listened to his woes at the dinner table as I grew up.  His choice was to create a sourcing company to find companies overseas that could produce garments cheaper than US workers.  Everyone in the apparel industry hated him at first when he started this company, and then later they all wanted to work with him because NAFTA basically did nothing to help the situation.  Sure assets are taxed when they come back into the country, but there are ways to get around that.  Do you tax every asset built for a movie set?  What if there are more revisions?  Do you tax it again?  You cannot find a American company now a days that can sew garments at the same level as India and China, it's a lost art.  How would a trade organization fix the fact that the world is now flat and we are competing globally?

Scott Squires - The Trade org would be global and as such not likely to deal with subsidies. (i.e. some companies will win/lose as subsidies change). Unfortunately the subsidies are a huge problem. vfxsoldier is in the process of trying to get WTO coverage to support their own regulations. Other avenue is to let tax payers know about the cost to them, their loss of money and how politicians are giving their money away to film studios when it could be put for public use. Not sure why ukuncut and orgs have yet to figure this out.

Trade association - it's a changing world. This is much different than the auto or garment industries. Movies are not priced to the consumers based on the work we do. The companies simply allow the studios to make more profits. We do what we can. Realize that all vfx companies around the world are having to jump through the same hoops. The vfx companies have allowed themselves to be in the least leveraged position possible. And vfx workers seem to be intent on helping them do it. As long as vfx companies simply roll over, the worse this will get. Standing up as companies is one of the first steps.

Angie Jones - Again, not really an answer here.  I was hoping the Trade Organization would form a group of lobbyists to work with government to make change.  This is probably the biggest point of contention for most people I speak with working in VFX/CG/Animation is that they feel the ship has sailed and there is nothing we can do about the subsidies, therefore, the US studios have stopped hiring domestically and will continue to form studios overseas and make it a requirement of employment to agree to work overseas.  A race to the bottom.  

I guess we can only hope that taxpayers become more aware of where their tax money is going and figure out the fuzzy math and rise up against these kickbacks.

The main problem is if the subsidies are not dealt with, there is no work force to unionize because they are all overseas or in Canada.

Angie Jones - If it has taken 25 years for Scott Ross to organize the VFX facilities - why do you think a trade organization can happen in 6 months?  Why do you think you can now turn this thing around with the complexity of the entire industry moving... not only out of California, but out of the US?  This is a time sensitive issue.  People are losing their houses, their cars, and are faced with leaving the industry entirely to keep their kids in school and food on the table.

Scott Squires - I don't think anyone said 6 months. The point is the at least some companies are starting to realize what's happening. Same as with vfx artists, it seems to take the longest time just to break through with the basic concepts and have people open to considering it. Organizing is a faster process than getting mind share.

Angie Jones - Scott Ross told me it would take 6 months on fb. I am sure he is ideally positive when it comes to this thing and I am a big cheerleader behind his/your efforts. I do hope the "Mind Share" turns around within the next six months because there will be no experienced workforce left to worry about otherwise.  This is a time sensitive issue. I know people walking miles to job interviews because they have lost their car and do not even have money for a bus ride.  It's really bad.

Angie Jones - What is the schedule to make all of these "solutions" you propose happen?  Is that schedule going to jive with the fact that it may be a day-late-and-a-dollar-short to make any change?  I would like to see a schedule.  If it doesn't happen in six months to a year... things look dire to most artists working now.

Scott Squires - Timeline. If artists signed rep cards today the union could file to unionize a company tomorrow. Workers control the speed of this. If they truly wish things to change quickly they could do so. But everyone's simply dragging their feet and wringing their hands. The trade assoc is up to how anxious the companies are.

Angie Jones - I honestly know no one dragging their feet.  Only people out of work and frustrated who have signed cards like myself but are not working.  Maybe all of these people you feel are dragging their feet, will change their minds when they read this?  

I sensed irritation with my questions and I apologize if the inquiries came across as redundant. I honestly stopped reading the VFX soldier, VFX Law and other blogs because they come off incredibly angry and ranting and I know I am not the only one.  I am hopeful the positive presentation of information here for artists might clear the air on many topics bothering us all.

I used to think - "Why do I need a union?"  

Now, I am thinking the situation is so messed up, "why not sign a card and see what happens." I am in the fortunate situation that I am teaching mostly now and do not rely on VFX/CG/Anim to pay my rent.  But, that is not the case for most of my colleagues.  Hopefully the people you feel are dragging their feet will take the "why not" attitude now. I mean what has anyone got to lose, now?  

And "Yes," as you state there ARE facilities located here in the US.  However, the only facilities hiring domestically are the tiny boutique commercial houses, because the schedule wouldn't even allow for sending anything overseas.  These houses are doing their best to keep afloat and so they hire mostly 1099 contract workers to avoid paying workers comp and taxes.  

I understand you say the Union will change this, and maybe it will?  I understand your frustration with people not signing cards, but it's up to the Union to explain what signing a card means in simple terms.  More to come on this topic, I am sure.

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