Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Dialogue with the Digital Gypsy

A few days back, the Digital Gypsy put up a think piece about visual effx unions, to wit:

I'm interested to hear from folks within a union circle, and how it might have affected you. I also wonder about visual effects artists outside of North America, in the UK and Asia and the South Pacific. Are there local visual effects unions there, and how do you think your local vfx scene might change if one were formed?
VFX Unions

I've been thinking about this topic while I wait for some frames to render on the farm, and I'm unsure as to what the qualifications of a visual effects union might be. What are your thoughts on visual effects unionization? Would they help or hinder the visual effects industry? What sort of standards are required? Would the marketplace become more competitive or less?

Here's the definition of a union.

Unions are mass organisations of the working class whose primary role is to achieve the common demands of their members. They are fundamentally defensive organizations. A good union can not only improve workers' lives, win more leisure time and a better standard of living, they can also change governments and make very significant changes across society.

Are vfx artists working class? Do we need a defensive organization in a field of work that we are voluntarily a part of? Personally, I think not. If I don't like a company, I leave. There are many studios out there, all wiling to pay for top talent, or even talent as it is. If a bunch of artists decide to stop working because of unfair practices (10 hours is too much! There's no sun in here!), there are a bunch of others that want to take our place. Would I love an eight hour day like before? Sure I would. And of course, I don't need to work 10 hours to get something done. It's all about the organization of the beast. Given the resources, one could work 4 days a week and still get work done. We're not doctors or nurses, we're in entertainment. We're not saving lives here, and our work is forgotten almost the moment after you see it. We live pretty swank lives compared to some, save for the hours some of us put in near the end of a show, but they are far and few between.

In case you are wondering about the VES, it's a guild. We pay annual dues, but there are no distinct advantages that automatically come with enrollment. We have an option for healthcare, and we receive screeners and opportunities to attend Academy (AMPAS) events. But there's no minimum wage, no maximum number of hours to be worked per week, no pension.

I responded as follows:

I'm the business representative of the Animation Guild, a labor organization repping cgi artists and TDs at various L.A. animation houses (also board artists, designers, and animation writers.)

First point: In my experience, a large part of the CGI culture is libertarian and anti-collective bargaining. Many don't see the need for a union or guild and consider themselves free agents.

I understand the view, but consider this: Federal labor regulations stipulate that an "animator" is non-exempt from overtime law. If you're an "animator" (cgi or hand-drawn) there's a strong argument to be made that you must receive overtime after forty hours worked in a week.

Do animators in CGI generally get overtime? To my knowledge, no. (Obviously it varies company to company). And this isn't a philosophical argument we're having here ("Wouldn't it be nice if..."), it's a matter of law.

I've been business repping a long time, and for the most part, people don't like to rock the boat in which they're floating. Abuses go on all the time: illegal immigrant workers, overtime abuses, violation of wage laws. Mostly people ignore it, and God knows the Feds and state aren't energetic enforcing the law. So then, what's somebody working in games or viz effects of feature animation to do?

One way to help level the playing field is to organize the studio in which you're working, (by organizing, I mean getting a union or guild contract) because it's good to have someone, anyone helping to enforce the rules. And that's what unions and guilds do.

Once upon a time, the movie industry was similar to how the cgi industry is today: Wide open, wild and wooly, pay rates all over the map. An old-timer who worked on live-action sets in the 1920s said: We came in at 8 or 9 in the morning and worked until 3 in the morning or until we fell down. That's just the way it was...

Sound familiar? Nothing ever changes. Human nature is pretty much a constant. But this old gent went on to say: "Thank God the unions finally came in, because it was really out of hand."

I'll be the first to tell you that unions and guilds are not the end-all or the be-all. They don't solve every problem, they are often led by silly, craven, unserious people. But consider this:

If you stack up the wages and benefits in the unionized part of cgi-land, I think you'll discover that the union part of the biz makes more money overall than the non-union segment.

That, to my mind, trumps the arguments about being a free agent and making your own deals. Because in the end, money is a large part of what working for a living is about: It's how we keep score. And you want a higher score when you reach the age of sixty-five and have to (want to?) hang it up and smell the roses.


Anonymous said...

>>>If you stack up the wages and benefits in the unionized part of cgi-land, I think you'll discover that the union part of the biz makes more money overall than the non-union segment.<<<

That doesn't seem like a good way to measure anything. Most of the larger studios pay better than the smaller ones. And those larger studios just happen to be unionized. But, whos to say that the reason is because it is Union.

Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

Another thought:

There are larger studios...owned by conglomerates, and there are

Smaller studios...doing work for conglomerates.

Almost everyone works for the same half-dozen monster companies, either directly or indirectly. So why shouldn't they all get decent wages and health benefits?

(There are a few exceptions to the above, but only a few.)

Kevin Koch said...

To the first anonymous:

Having benefits or not having benefits (health and pension) is a hell of an important way to measure things. The fact is that there are both large and small studios that are union. And most of the nonunion studios, no matter how large, offer health and pension to either a small subset of their employees, or offer minimal benefits, or no benefits at all. The difference in benefits between union studios and nonunion studios is, with few exceptions, HUGE.

And, frankly, most nonunion studios are paying what they do and offering the few benefits they do simply because they have to compete with the union studios for the best talent. If there was no unionization at all in animation, things at nonunion studios would be worse than they are now.

Anonymous said...

I'm having a hard time trying to articulate my point. I think it was misunderstood by both of you. It was pointed at salaries, not benefits. Anyhow, since I'm having a hard time trying to describe it, I'll just let it rest.

Kevin Koch said...

I think it was clear what you were saying. It's just that the quote you were responding to referred to "wages and benefits." My point was that focusing just on salary is misleading, since if you have higher pay, but no benefits, then your effective, real pay is much lower.

Also, among the studios I'm familiar with, I'm not sure the average pay among rank and file animation professionals really correlates very well with studio size (except maybe for supervisors and such). I'm talking about comparing studios of various sizes doing the same kind of work. I'm not talking about comparing, say, a tiny internet company with a large feature company. I'm talking about comparing studios doing TV animation with other studios doing TV work, and so on.

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