Monday, February 28, 2011

Organizer's Notes: Steve Wright - Latest FUD Distributor

FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt is the strongest argument tool the opposition has to organization. It strikes hard and deep with those who choose not to look past the first few sentences. Dispelling FUD arguments is the biggest job of a Union Organizer.

Steve Wright‘s tutorials and lessons are well known inside of the visual effects community. When I wanted to learn the theories and techniques of composition for vfx, I was pointed towards his book Digital Compositing for Film and Video. (Excellent.) His tutorials have always been held up as must-need items for those seeking immediate and easily understood lessons. My respect for Steve and his work made reading his latest Op-Ed piece so painful.

Outline of Steve’s Argument

Steve’s opening paragraph states three reasons why Los Angeles is losing visual effects work: cheap labor elsewhere, tax incentives elsewhere, and exorbitant and “punitive” taxes levied against film production in Los Angeles. He then adds that unionizing should be counted as a forth obstacle and equates it to the final coffin for Los Angeles visual effects.

He explains that visual effects is so broadly spread that cineSync was created to facilitate the ease of coordinating visual effects work from afar. He even invokes Asylum and CafeFX to provide examples to how heavy the burden is for local shops to succeed.

His real assault on unions and organizing is closer to the end of his essay. After calling it “industrial suicide”, he makes the claim that the IATSE is attempting to raise artists pay, collect dues and provide benefits to members. This, he claims, will assault Los Angeles visual effects studios by raising the costs of doing business. Finally, he furthers the FUD argument of job classification and how unionization will muddy the workflow of a studio by inserting multiple locals which will argue over who can do what work.

Rebuttal: The Reality of His “Facts”

The Industry Is Evolving

As Steve explains in his essay, it is evident that the industry is going through changes. Los Angeles was once the Mecca for all visual effects. In the 20-plus years that Steve has been a visual effects artist, he’s seen the work spread out across the globe. Fearing that the work will leave all-together is natural for someone whose witnessed the rise of the industry in Canada, the UK and beyond. But, fearing that change is a choice as is not checking facts or exploiting those fears to frighten those around you.

While it may be difficult to accept the change that is underway, it's impossible to say that the addition of collective bargaining for visual effects artists will be the death-knell for visual effects in the Los Angeles area. Steve used a broad-stroke overview of the industry’s world-wide growth to strike fear by concluding that Los Angeles is seeing work leave its borders at an alarming rate. Had he bothered to do a simple Google search, he could have found the same facts that were used to write this article in the TAG Blog.

While shops like Cafe FX and Asylum will be missed, they'd been thriving a nd succeeding in the visual effects industry for years before closing their doors. In Los Angeles. I’ve heard grumblings among artists that Cafe FX over-extended themselves to get Alice in Wonderland completed, and that Asylum suffered from mis-management and lack of attention to operating costs and profit. Strong arguments can be made that they decided it was easier to get out when they did as opposed to continuing to struggle as successful visual effects studios.

What is pointed out in the article linked above, is that studios *are* opening in Los Angeles. While some are linked to multi-national organizations, this sort of defeats his argument that Los Angeles is a scourge for Visual Effects studios. Even the multi-national organizations understand that having an office close to the studios is essential for quick turn-arounds and approvals. This makes smaller and aggressive Visual Effects studios able to pick up work and grow much as he claims used to happen, but doesn’t anymore.

The Purpose Of Unionization

Steve shares his ideas on the existence of unions with this statement:

In fact, [unions only exist] to get [their] members higher pay and more benefits, which obviously raises the cost of doing business. Their other reason for their existence, of course, is to collect union dues.

In light of what’s been transpiring in Wisconsin, this statement is vile in its inaccuracy. Unions exist to bring to their members the strength of collective action. This way, a labor force is able to bring an equitable share of the decision making power of the workplace to its corner. IATSE contracts establish wage minimums, provide active monitoring of federal and state labor laws, stipulate holidays and overtime regulations among other things. You can read a copies of the IATSE Basic Agreement or the TAG Contracts at the provided links.

Providing a venue for visual effects artists to act upon their workplace concerns only serves to fortify the industry. Working at a studio whose signatory to an IATSE contract gives an artist the ability to make substantial and beneficial changes while protecting their work environment. The IATSE isn’t interested in shutting down visual effects studios. Rather, we want to see artists provided with a seamless cloak of contractually stipulated benefits across the industry.

The Cost Of Unionization

Membership Costs

In the above quote, Steve accuses unions of only being interested in dues. This argument is moldy with age and stale with overuse. However, for the sake of clarification, these are facts on dues and fees.

All locals of the IATSE, like unions everywhere, require members to pay dues. These payments go to the maintenance and operational costs of the locals. The electric bill, the phone bill, stamps, office supplies, staff salaries all are funded with these payments. At the end of the year, each local has to file an LM-2 statement that details how much money was taken in and spent over the course of the last year. The Animation Guild’s 2009 LM-2 statement can be found at this link. Each local is asked to pay the IATSE a head-tax per member as well as a fee for each member who joins.

When the national VFX Local is formed, it will elect officers and an executive board. That governing body will be responsible for drawing up the constitution and by-laws of the local. In those documents, among the other rules of the organization, they will spell out the dues and fees schedule.

Contractual Costs

Much text has been spilled over the costs involved in signing a union contract. I’ve written about this in a post called The Fallacies of Costs and Unionization, which says it's impossible to project long-term costs for a studio, since that contract has not been negotiated. Each contract is unique and no one can say with absolute certainty what each studio will be willing to accept or fight against. The Health and Pension contributions are definitely one of many costs that will be negotiated, and the IATSE will not easily budge on them.

A strong argument can also be made for studios that any costs involved in signing a contract would be less that what is currently being paid by studios who fund benefits to their employees. If a studio is offering health care or benefits to its employees, there could be a significant cost savings should they sign a contract with the IATSE.

The Role Of The Union In Daily Studio Operations

While this paragraph was a small one, it struck a nerve since it was so outside the realm of reality, I felt it imperative to respond:

In addition to the job-killing effects of higher production costs, we can add the efficiency-crushing effect of union rules. Sorry boss, I’m a compositor, not a lighter. You are going to have to call the CGI guy to come in this weekend to re-render that reflection pass. You can’t tell me to use Photoshop! That’s the digital photographer’s union. Need to work Sunday? That’s golden time (triple pay!). Roto? I can’t roto my own holdout mask. That’s the Rotoscoper’s Local 44.

Steve (apparently) knows little about modern entertainment unions. TAG and IA contracts have transparency and interchangability, and have had those features for years. Does he think the artists at DreamWorks or Disney Feature Animation or Warner Bros. stop at some mythical classification edge, then run to get someone else to perform work they can do themselves? Steve should ask his colleagues who work at Sony Pictures Animation how often they have to tell supervisors its not their job to do whats being asked of them.

While some IATSE locals have had to take a strong stand in live-action studio environments to protect their members, the IATSE is attempting to form a national Visual Effects local. This means, all artists will be a member of the same local and protected by the same contract and a part of the same health and pension plans.

For an author of many tutorials and many other opinion pieces, I find Steve’s lack of fact- gathering and high-powered rumor-mongering insulting. What can be worse for artists today than falsehoods spread through the mouth of what was, once upon a time, a reliable source?

The IATSE will establish portable standards and minimums that will offer protections and standards of living that have yet to be felt in the industry today. The purpose of organizing is to help visual effects artists achieve comforts and peace-of-mind that is rare in the industry they’ve chosen. An industry where every other person (actor, director, script supervisor, grip, costumer, honeywagon driver, etc) has fought and achieved collectively bargained standards they count on for their livelihoods.

IATSE President Matthew Loeb put it best in his letter to the VES:

You perform critical and highly specialized services to the industry and you deserve the same dignity, benefits and voice in the workplace afforded to every other craftsperson and creator. You have my full support and commitment in this endeavor to bring fairness and equity to the workers of Visual Effects.

Steve, if you're interested in getting any facts on this matter, feel free to contact Jim Goodman, IATSE Organizer for Visual Effects or myself at any time. Either of us would appreciate counting your voice among the many who have asked for information and learned that unionization isn’t what you had imagined; and could be the one thing that helps bring some sanity to a tumultuous field.


Steve Hulett said...

Neither the IA nor the Animation Guild act as over-officious hall monitors regarding CGI classifications. TAG hasn't filed a grievance over a CG employee working "out of classification" in a dozen years, and only one or two before that. (And those were re non-union employees performing union work.)

But Mr. Wright is mostly repeating the same empty warnings made by studio moguls in the 1930s. (Darryl Zanuck, a former movie writer, fought against the Screen Writers Guild for years. Zanuck claimed unionization would destroy the business, yet here it seventy-plus years later, still chugging away. How did that happen?)

Steve Wright said...

Mr. Kaplan - Your summary of my essay was stellar. Your rebuttal, less so.

FUD-free commentary

As a promoter of unionization, your motives are obvious. My motives are the health of the employment in Los Angeles for VFX artists. I do not want to see the last remnants of VFX work driven out of L.A. which is exactly what I believe will happen. I don't Fear it, I am not Uncertain, and have no Doubt.

Self-referencing your own blogs and writings hardly constitutes compelling evidence to support your case. Citing a few articles about the occasional opening of a studio here hardly reverses the overall trend to leave the L.A. area. DD opened their big new facility not in L.A. but in Florida. You know why? Major tax advantages, plus Florida is a right to work state (non-union). Now why would the wise owners of DD move to a right to work state?

I noticed that you failed to mention to your fair readers that IATSE used to have a union at ILM, Local 16, which is now defunct. If unionizing is so good for VFX artists why was IATSE driven from ILM?

I suppose the most glaring fault in your defense of unionization for VFX artists is the portability problem. When unionizing automobile workers, cel animators, or electricians there is no threat of the business picking up and leaving town. With VFX, the work is utterly portable, so if the costs get too high the work simply goes elsewhere. End of analysis. And end of your job. Excuse me - not your job. You are the union guy. You get to keep your job. It is the VFX artists that will loose their jobs.

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