Friday, September 23, 2011

What we do best

I was stung by the comment by Dave Rand that the IATSE has left a void in the drive to represent visual effects artists, and of our "planned failure". I gather that Dave is making reference to our inadequate performance in the social media. On that subject, I meekly and humbly agree. You're right Dave! We still don't have a website. We're building one but it has been a slow and painful construction project. Maybe my blog isn't all that it should be. So, yes, we aren't clicking on all eight cyclinders there. But, that doesn't mean we aren't the answer to the VES Bill of Rights; which asks for protection for workers' rights without any concrete suggestions for how to obtain those goals.
What Dave and others are overlooking is our strong track record in representing workers in the entertainment industry.
Here's what we do best.
When a contract comes up for negotiation, here's what we do:
First, we survey the industry. Who are the employers? What do they make? To whom do they sell? If public companies, what is their stock price? EBITDA? Net profits? Gross revenues? You get the idea.
Second, we survey our members. How much do you make? How many weeks per year do you work? How long is your average downtime and how is the union doing at finding you work? How many hours per week do you work? Can you, do you turn down overtime? Are you married? Children? When do you plan on retiring? Have you utilized the Health Plan? How much were your out of pocket costs? Do you work for one, or several employers? These survesys are done in person, via snail mail, and via email. We hold meetings so that our members can ask questions, get answers, and even ask follow-up questions.
Third, we draft proposals. Wish lists. Some are probably unrealistic. Some a reach. Some downright critical to achieve. We make priorities. What would we trade for what? What if?? We hold yet more member meetings where we distribute the tentative proposals, discuss our expectations and fears. Eventually we finalize our proposals.
Fourth, we meet with the employer. Sometimes one employer. Sometimes an entire industry in a multi-employer setting. It makes a big difference. We present our proposals, explaining them in detail, and why the employer's actions have necessitated the proposal. The employer makes proposals to us. (For years, several studios proposed doing away with meal periods and meal penalties. Seriously. You don't need to eat. And you certainly don't deserve to be paid a penalty if the employer forces you to work twelve hours straight without a meal. They said that. Really, they did.)
Fifth: those meetings continue on a daily basis for weeks, sometimes months. Some of the negotiating is done in big rooms with lots of people. Some is done in one-on-one "sidebars", where leaders speak off-the-record and candidly about priorities, realities, and compromises. It often comes down to a late-night session on the night an agreement expires. With a strike-threat looming. I've stayed up all night many a time. And I've seen strikes by SAG, WGA, Teamsters, and Office Workers. The DGA came close one year, but we settled at about 3 AM. (But the DGA forgot to call their New York office and picketing occurred for a few minutes until the DGA called New York and explained that we had averted a strike a few hours back!)
Inevitably, we reach agreement.
We call yet another union meeting and distribute the agreement. We note the successes and the failures. The things we got, and the things we couldn't get. We explain concessions we made to the employer to encourage them to be more competitive. There are no secret handshakes. We hold a debate. Ultimately, we have a ratification vote. Only if the members approve the contract is the process complete. If the members reject the deal, we go back to the table and explain why our members feel it's not a fair deal. We fight to get that last crumb.
Check with the cinematographers, editors, production designers, grips, and electricians. Ask them about their medical insurance. Their anticipated pension. How much vacation and holiday pay they received last year.
They'll tell. We did good. We did well.
It's what we do best. I've been doing this for 39 years. Maybe my blog isn't all it could be. My website should be here by now. But it's not. It will be up soon.
But one thing I can unequivocally guarantee. We'll fight for you. Individually and collectively.
'Cause that's what we do best.
Take a look at the VES' Bill of Rights. Every single item on the wish list is covered by the IATSE Basic Agreement. And every other agreement we negotiate. And we'll incorporate those issues in a visual effects agreement. And, so long as there continue to be movies, and prima donna directors, and Hollywood studios, there will be LA-based visual effects companies with whom we will do business. We already have contracts with some of them. We'll get more.
It's what we do best.


  1. Jimmy,

    I believe you have our best interests in mind, and I dearly want to see our common goals reached. It's an uphill, emotionally fraught battle but I urge you to not give up.

    A few thoughts:

    - Your blog is thoughtful and interesting but I think we'd like to see more news, reports of progress and things we could get involved in.

    - The editorializing is interesting reading and you clearly have a lifetime of experience, but the formatting makes it difficult to read sometimes. I might gently encourage you to break up your paragraphs with blanks lines. That will do a lot to make your blog look more consistent with what people expect from internet-based content.

    - I'd love to hear your thoughts on the widespread fear in our industry regarding how vocally supporting a unionization effort might make it hard for less established artists to get work, i.e. "black listing".

    Thanks again for all your hard work, it's well appreciated!

  2. Thanks Jimmy. Check out what the art Director's have done in their push to get previs artists to sign up. (website with faq, benefits of the union, etc) That's one IA union. Why has it been so hard for the IA to simply do that for VFx artists? It's a small thing but a very visible thing to show the artists that the IA is taking this seriously and they're willing to put some time and money Into this process.

    What about being on a podcast or the 100 other ways to get the message out? You have a blog. Why not a twitter account to announce when you have a new post? The other unions have twitter accounts.

    How about health care insurance costs of vfx companies through the union versus them having a small business insuance plan? Is it a win for the companies? Artists and companies are concerned that union will force all work overseas. What can the union say and show that isn't the case?

    If the IA started addressing these items I think you'd see a much better response.

  3. I'd like to put in my opinion of why I think younger artists aren't in full support of a union, based on my experiences. The common thread that ties all jobs together is the rate. It's the easiest thing to compare when looking at different job offers. I think it's safe to assume that artists in their 20's and possibly 30's are mostly interested in how much money is going into their bank account each month. A pension, 401(k), etc aren't the most important thing to a lot of younger artists. For those artists that are thinking that far into the future and run the numbers of a union shop vs non-union I don't think they come out that amazing.

    My personal experience is with Dreamworks, which many say has some of the best benefits in the business. Their offer to me included the usual benefits of a possible bonus, health insurance, etc. The main thing that stuck out to me, though, was the pay. The hourly rate would have been $13/hr less than I was currently making. The only benefit I had at my, then current job, was health insurance, so let's call those equal and cancel them out. Would that $26,000+ extra per year I wasn't making in pay be made up for in all the other benefits? I ran all the numbers and whatnot and decided it wouldn't benefit me that much and I'd end up taking a pay cut. Plus the guaranteed 3% raises were way below the raises I would get at most other studios (from my experience).

    Now, this is obviously just my experience and could be an anomaly. However I do think that most younger artists will put the emphasis on the pay. Based on that I think it would be great for IATSE/TAG/etc to show the true cost benefits of everything they offer. How about a chart that shows the actually monetary value of the benefits that are offered and how those compare to someone working straight freelance or as an employee w/o benefits.

  4. All this stuff about representing workers is great, but it's putting the cart before the horse. First you have to spread the word, get some motivated leaders and organize some vfx shops. At least 70-80% of the artists I've spoken to aren't even aware that there is an organizing drive under way. That is a massive failure to communicate especially in an industry as close knit and small as ours. Represent your current members, but don't forget that there are thousands of vfx artists who haven't even heard that IA is interested in representing them as well.

  5. Hello Jimmy,

    I hear your pain. We are a nagging bunch, arent'we? A website, a vote, information, charts, maybe daily news with a live counter of signed rep card. I too would love to see the progress meter fill.
    I realize not everything that is going on will fill it. what is complicated is that it feels IA tells us what your great at BUT we cant use it. How much worth is it to know we are covered if disaster strikes if we dont even get close to being represented. thats not your fault. We need to demand it but without leaders there is no following.

    Why cant the IA try to have meetings and talks in each vfx shops. The union and its cheaper health plan brings benefits to the shop owners too, union does not have to be a fear word. Maybe IA needs to remind the owners that it could help them too!

    I see many artist being afraid of being blacklisted if they so much as start a discussion of unionizing vfx. If the company gives their boardroom to you for an hour they will gladly accept this now "sanctioned" meeting. Maybe in order to be represented we need to feel free to choose first?!

    I say contact the shops, ask for a room and an hour. See if they say yes, or no or if they tell you to get the $%$% out. Maybe remind them IA has deals for the owners too, not just the working force. I'm sure 1 out of 3 does not know the benefits of being a union shop.

    If you need help, let us know. If you need contacts, let us know. If you need a forum, let us know. Im running if you want a dedicated forum section, we can make that happen.

    We can help you help us, but you need to be less behind closed doors and more in contact with us please. thank you for reading Jimmy!

  6. I agree with a few of the Anonymous comments here. I disagree with the comments relating to 'fear' of artists getting 'black-listed'.

    A VFX union, in my opinion would only benefit freelance artists seeking included benefits such as health insurance. In turn, it would more likely hurt the industry and pave the way for less talented/productive artists to cruise along comfortably in a position that they're not really qualified to have.

    In my experience and many other top tier artists that I know, getting the rate you want and the hours you want is solely up to you. If you have assets that are valuable to a VFX studio, they are going to do/pay whatever it takes to have you in that studio working.

    For anyone who has experience in this industry, you know all too well that there are way too many under qualified artists actively working in the industry and all a Union would do is enable these said artists to continue a career that they're not qualified for in the first place. This trend is essentially 'de-valuing' the industry by running up rates they're not entitled to and disabling qualified artists from making a fair percentage more than they should over their less qualified counterparts.

    If you want protection, protect yourself by stepping up your game and assets you have to offer. Because honestly, top tier artists have a monopoly in this business as freelancers.

    These said artists would also never be in fear of being 'black-listed' nor would most of them be in favor of an organized Union. The reason being because if you have the skills and any decent sense of business, I guarantee you're doing just fine and getting exactly what you want out of the business financially.

    Finally, a Union would most likely force equalized pay and benefits across all positions when we, as artists, know good and well that not all of us are deserving of the same pay and benefits.