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Q&A: Dusty Kelly, Organizer, IATSE Local 891

Monday, April 4th, 2011 | Posted by Jim Thacker

Visual Effects has never been an industry that you get into in order to work short hours. But recently, the issue of burnout has been hitting the headlines more than usual, with industry bloggers such as Allan McKay and VFX Soldier highlighting the plight of many VFX artists.

It is stories like these that have prompted The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’ current organization drive within the visual effects industry. The giant entertainment union is currently looking to recruit artists in Los Angeles and Vancouver to increase its bargaining power on members’ behalf, kicking off its campaign last year with a series of striking YouTube videos.

But with the recent closure of mid-sized shops such as CafeFX and Asylum VFX, Los Angeles studio heads have claimed that tax incentives in the UK and Canada are squeezing profit margins in an already marginal market.

So can North American facilities afford to reduce their working hours, or raise rates of pay? And what can unions like IATSE actually do to negotiate such changes anyway? We spoke to Dusty Kelly, Corresponding Secretary and Organizer of IATSE Local 891 in Vancouver, to find out.

CG Channel: Not all of our readers will be familiar with what IATSE does. Could you give us a quick synopsis?

Dusty Kelly: IATSE is the largest entertainment union in the world and has members in Canada, the USA and Puerto Rico. Combining the bargaining strength of IATSE’s members into one union provides for some of the best wages and benefits for workers in the entertainment industry.

There are over 400 local unions affiliated with the IA, representing stage, commercials, motion-picture production, trade shows and television broadcasting, to name a few. My home local, IATSE Local 891 is the fourth-largest in North America, and the largest in Canada, with over 5,400 members. We represent 22 departments, including visual effects.

CGC: How much does it cost to join? And what are the annual dues?

DK: It depends on which local you’re joining, but for the organizing drive, Local 891 is waiving all initiation and processing fees for VFX artists. Our annual dues are $320 per year, which provides access to a number of services the union offers, including life insurance coverage and training reimbursements.

CGC: That’s still a significant amount of money for most people. So what else does IATSE offer in return? Can you give us a concrete example of an advance negotiated on its members’ behalf?

DK: The union [as a whole] has negotiated overtime premiums for working extended hours and weekends, as well as a provision for adequate turnaround, making it cost-prohibitive to work around the clock – the cost for loss of work life balance.

Our collective agreements also generate employer contributions designated for our members’ retirement. In early 2002, Local 891 began to investigate better retirement options for our members [forming] the genesis of the Canadian Entertainment Industry Retirement Plan.

Today the plan has grown to 13,994 members from Canadian IATSE locals and the Directors Guild of Canada and has $117,000,000 in assets. Collective buying power [has resulted in] exceptionally low management fees, adding millions of dollars to our members’ retirement plan.

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CGC: Let’s talk about the organization drive itself. What prompted you to launch it?

DK: We are actively organizing throughout the entertainment industry, and we were approached by artists experiencing negative working conditions seeking representation.

Currently the drive is in Los Angeles, California and Vancouver, British Columbia. Local 891 is organizing in Vancouver and the International is organizing in Los Angeles. There have been artists enquiring from other jurisdictions and expansion of the organizing campaign is being investigated by the International.

CGC: What proportion of members does IATSE have to have at a studio before the union is authorized to negotiate on their behalf? How close are you to reaching that threshold?

DK: The organizing process is particular to each province in Canada. In British Columbia, the regulations require 45% of employees to have signed representation cards to trigger a secret ballot, whereupon 50% plus one vote in favour of union representation would result in the certification of the workers at the facility. Collective agreement negotiations would then commence between the union represented employees and the employer.

I cannot speak to reaching thresholds, as this is confidential information.

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CGC: One of the criticisms made of IATSE is that it doesn’t make efficient use of digital media to promote its work, reducing the chances of reaching those thresholds. Is anything being done to address this?

Local 891 recognized that we needed to have a digital presence in reaching out to non-union VFX artists. That is why we created a digital presence designed to reach the VFX community. Our website is a resource for artists to visit and find out more about the union and what it offers, and links to our blog, Facebook page, and YouTube channel. We also communicate through Twitter @IATSE891VFX. The IA in the US is currently working on developing its own digital presence.

CGC: In a recent blog post, you revealed that you were asked to leave a Visual Effects Society meeting. Do you feel that the VES is an organization you can work with?

DK: I can see the possibility of partnering on training and mentoring initiatives. Otherwise our mandates are significantly different. Local 891 is a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to achieve, by organization and mutual endeavour, the improvement of the social and economic conditions of our members.

CGC: To play devil’s advocate for a minute: the market is tough in LA at the minute, and several shops have closed. Don’t companies simply pay artists what they can afford and still remain in business?

DK: Stunning digital imagery is as much a box-office draw these days as the actors. Consequently, these films generate significant revenues for the studios. The studios subcontract the VFX work to facilities who submit fixed bids to procure the project. If the project runs over budget, our experience tells us that the companies shift the burden of delivery onto the artists, who are then required to work more hours often for the same or disproportionately less pay.

As a union representative I feel strongly that all workers should be compensated fairly and legally for all time worked. I firmly believe this sector of employees should have access to benefits, as do all the other unionized workers in our industry: the directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, costumers, painters, and so on. The best companies will succeed: I just don’t believe it should be at the expense of the artists who do the work.

Visit the IATSE Local 891 website

Visit the IATSE Local 891 blog

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  • http://Krticalmind@tweeter.com Honest John

    In these far more enlightened times, issues by either party must be heavily suspect for deceptive omissions and fraudulent concealment. Some unions are built on this corruption. Simply will the value and brotherhood and sisterhood provide economic merit beyond proven professional partnership. Now as just common sense and standard of care due diligence stuff ask small departments in 891 like art to accounting if the 891 cost and other premiums have been “honestly” worth the special representation by Ms. Kelly and the company she keeps. What is her reputation “exactly” to justify your trust.as with any political promise maker. Has she ever had efforts in her own union to remove her in matters of trust? How many times? Why? Why? Why? Has her union ever been involved in “coercion and intimidation” as defined by courts restricting trade and in fact threatening members or washing hands when things get ugly and does she know any fake pretending in elections where some will run from self-interest and blatant greed suppressing those far more qualified from education to experience and in some specific cases far more honest. Did 470 members vote on a platform of a forensic audit and full RCMP investigations. Ask Ms. Kelly and see if she lies or how honest. Many watching. Many places. Two sides to every story. The truth is out there.

  • geoff hull

    I have been working under an IATSE contract through the Art Directors Guild for over 10 years now. I owe much of the standard of living that I enjoy to the working environment that it has created. I highly recommend the Union and it’s benefits. I know far too many people who are abused by unpaid hours, working requirements, and a total lack of benefits.

  • OT

    Who is going to stop the studios to outsource to India, China etc .. ? Lets face reality this is a dying industry in the West ! Only highly key talented people, will have jobs, execution will be done in cheap labour countries.
    Currently in Canada a VFX Company can give away the VFX at cost and with some magic trick they still make a good profit. Thats not the same in Los Angeles.
    no tax credit = no work = no IATSI

  • geoff hull

    We need to realize that the world has changed and give up on the phony idea of Free Trade. No other country is really doing it. They all have an industrial policy, in which the government actively competes, to attract desirable industries. Whether it is tax credits, energy policies, R&D support, or predictable regulations. China India Canada Germany all do these things and they protect the industries they have with tariffs. Germany is a great example. Their labor is not cheap but they manage to export, high value manufactured goods all over the world. They just don’t leave it open to companies and individuals to compete on their own.

  • http://www.bandito.co.uk S Gomez

    Tax incentives in the UK??? really? check your facts not sure that is true at all. We are losing out to Canada constantly.

  • http://www.cgchannel.com Jim Thacker

    As far as I know, there are still tax breaks for ‘qualifying film production expenditure’ carried out in the UK, which does include visual effects: at least, those pages are still on the Film Council and HMRC websites:

    http://www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/taxrelief
    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/fpcmanual/fpc50090.htm

    I’m not an expert on this, though, so I stand to be corrected if that has changed recently.

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