Look Inward: A Call To Action

Just received this from one of our readers via e-mail last night. We wish that we could take credit for it as it is artfully written, poignant, and well-voiced.

Fellow VFX professionals, an amazing thing has happened recently. A tipping point has been reached and it would seem that our green spring is upon us. We suddenly find ourselves asking each other what our next step ought to be.

Everyone in this industry can agree that the current business model is not sustainable. VFX facilities all over the world are being squeezed by their clients to accept razor-thin margins as the best case scenario, and they are passing their hardship on to the artists, engineers, and support staff that work for them because they simply have no other choice.

We VFX professionals love our jobs and we love this business, for all its flaws.  We often consider our employers to be partners and even friends.  We want desperately to see the facilities form a trade group to protect their interests. But they have thus far been unable or unwilling to do so.

A small contingent of us have been wracking our brains trying to figure out a way to force this issue. Many of us want to go union as an industry, but we would like to see our employers take this step with us and form a trade group. However, we have finally come to the hard realization that we cannot force this move upon them. We cannot coerce our employers in to taking this leap, no matter how badly we would like to. We can only be responsible for ourselves and our own actions.

Fellow VFX professionals around the world, it is time for us to take the lead. We will never be as powerful again as we are at this moment. It should be clear by now that no one, not the facilities and certainly not the studios, will take our cause up as long as it affects their bottom line. No one will wave a wand and speak the magic words “you are respected!” If you are looking for someone to blame for your current situation, look in the mirror. And then resolve to take control of your own destiny and join a damn union already.

It will not be easy. No one will hand this to you. It will take leaders who will do headcounts, hold meetings, and generally risk their necks for something greater than themselves. But look at it this way… one hundred years ago people were getting shot and beaten for organizing. To our colleagues in the western world, what is the worst thing that could happen, you’ll be laid off? In this industry, that’s just another thanks for a job well done anyway. It won’t be easy, but it won’t be that hard.

As for the facilities, we have to have faith that once they see where we are headed they will come along with us. They will have to, or they risk being squeezed from both sides.

However, there are gestures that we could make as a community that would guide them toward the right choice and help them make this transition as smoothly as possible. Our contracts can be negotiated so that some of the additional costs to the employer ramp up over time, so the facilities have an opportunity to reassess the situation and form a trade group. Once trade group talks have begun, we could stage walk outs or protests at facilities that are not participating. We can create a partnership with the trade group and together we could revolutionize an entire global industry.

But first we have to form a single voice among ourselves. And like it or not, that means organizing.

Many of you who read this document will approach it with an anti-union bias. Perhaps due to your political views the term holds negative connotations that you can’t explain. Some of you may believe that unions can only lead to laziness, or a rigid seniority system where undeserving veterans stifle the advancement of younger, hungrier individuals. To you we say this: our union is what we decide it is. No more, no less.

To that end, as VFX professionals the writers of this document would want to see the following in any guild or union that we would join:

  • Mobile benefits (health insurance, retirement, etc.) extracted from employer contributions and subsidized by collected media royalties.
  • Hourly rates with overtime, double time, and reasonable limits to the amount of hours worked in consecutive days and weeks. (This is already CA state law. If your employer is violating labor laws where you live REPORT THEM to your labor board.)
  • No stifling of mobility among the ranks.  Seniority has very little influence upon pay rate or position. Artists are awarded positions and pay based on merit just as they presumably are now.
  • No miscategorization of workers by the employer.
  • Hold fees for all freelance employees.  Minimum notice for release.
  • Reasonable wage minimums, varying by position, that increase annually at the rate of inflation.
  • Increased rates for artists who are required to move from their ‘home base.’
  • Holiday pay, vacation days, and sick days accrued over time.
  • Pay structures for artists working remotely on their own equipment.
  • A cooperative relationship with management.  We are all here to get the job done with as much quality and efficiency as possible, and would want to see employees negotiating in good faith to that end.

The general consensus that we have been seeing online and in the workplace is that this is not necessarily about earning more pay. It is about pushing the industry to adopt standards that will lead to healthier lifestyle for everyone in the field of VFX.

It is also worth noting, for those who are unfamiliar with the process, that no union or guild contract can be ratified without a majority vote by the employees under said contract. We sit at the bargaining table, we approve the conditions of our agreement, we enforce them. No one wins if the employer folds. Not the guild, not the workers, certainly not the facility.

Note that a global union and trade group movement does not directly address the contentious issue of government subsidies. The authors of this document believe that this is a discussion for another day.  The courts of treaty law and public opinion will ultimately decide upon their continued use.  This is a global industry and it will continue to be so.  The subsidies themselves are the symptom of a greater problem: the VFX community has little to no perceived leverage vs. their clients. It is our belief that the formation of these entities will correct that imbalance.

Regarding Pi Day (March 14th 2013), we should turn it in to a day of solidarity among VFX artists. Wear green and take time to talk to your coworkers about what we can do to make life better for all of us.

However, we cannot settle for a mere symbolic gesture. This process must begin immediately to capitalize on the visibility and energy we have harnessed in our community. And it begins with us workers.

To the reader of this document: Set up meetings with a union rep. Educate yourself about what it would mean to be in a guild or union. Sign a card, and then encourage your coworkers to sign cards. As Dave Rand suggested in his YouTube video, let’s see how many union cards we can sign before Pi Day. Let that day also serve as your deadline. Get head counts in your facility so you know when you have majority support. Take responsibility for your situation and make something happen.

If the VFX business is to change, it requires bold action and collaboration between industry professionals at all levels.  Competition will continue to be fierce, as it should be, but if we succeed we will be competing in a market of efficiency, ideas, and innovation, instead of one comprised of fear and exploitation.

We VFX professionals have just begun to awaken. The power we hold over this industry is incredible and should not be underestimated. Anyone who doubts this should note the deafening silence from the studios, the academy, the MPAA, and most every facility in the business. They are afraid. They are hoping we will go away and forget the insults and mistreatment.  But everyday they open Facebook and Twitter and see an army of digital green.

Show them that we are just getting started. Look inward for your strength. Band together around the world and #HoldTheLine against unsustainable business practices and unsustainable lifestyles.

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