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.
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.
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.