Stage Employees eyes one of the largest non-unionized sectors in biz

Two unions have launched organizing drives for visual effects artists — one of the largest non-unionized sectors in showbiz.

The moves by the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Intl. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers come at a time when studio demand for more dazzling visual effects has been increasing amid cutthroat competition as escalating computing power drives costs downward.

Vfx guru Richard Edlund (“Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) told Daily Variety , “The visual effects has been a non-union group for many, many years, and it is about time they get representation.”

IATSE went public in recent days with its organizing effort. “You perform services to the industry, and you deserve the same dignity, benefits and voice in the workplace afforded to every other craftperson and creator,” said president Matthew Loeb in a letter sent to Visual Effects Society exec director Eric Roth and chair Jeff Okun.

Loeb said IATSE has been laying the groundwork for its drive for the past year. Okun and several other VFX experts said the IBEW’s also attempting to organize the visual effects artists.

“I think it’s good for the vfx artists to have the option to be in a union,” said longtime vfx supervisor Scott Squires. “Vfx has been one of the few segments of production lacking union coverage. Vfx artists move from project to project and studio to studio just as the rest of production crews do, so getting consistent health coverage has been an issue.”

Squires noted that in the pre-digital days, vfx artists were repped by a variety of unions, but those efforts seemed to fade out once digital vfx became the standard.

An exec at a leading vfx house, who asked not to be named, said unionization could be problematic.

“I’m not inherently anti-union, but for a mid-sized company, we’re under tremendous price pressure,” he said. “If what we pay for increases, we’re just doomed. It’s really the cost to the employer. We’re paying health benefits already, and that goes up every year. Anything that makes that more difficult is just scary. It’s good to protect workers from abuse, but if it drives the jobs out of the state, we’re back to square zero.”

IATSE didn’t disclose whether it’s signed up any companies. The Alliance of Motion Picture & Televison Producers — which acts as the negotiating arm for the entertainment congloms — had no comment.

Okun told Daily Variety that the unionization drives are a positive development while noting that the Visual Effects Society can’t take an official position.

“I’m thrilled to death that they’re finally recognizing that vfx artists have not had any representation for years, and it’s about time,” Okun said. “Personally, I think this is very long overdue. I hope they’re successful, and I hope they have a plan for us to unionize without driving the rest of the work out of the United States.”

Loeb’s letter said IATSE — which has more than 112,000 members — has set up an organizing committee of industry veterans to develop a strategy. “Over 25,000 of our 60,000 members who work making motion pictures throughout the U.S. and Canada are in Los Angeles,” Loeb said. “These members enjoy the protection of the largest entertainment union in the world. The contracts under which they work provide for working conditions and benefit plans that are second to none. But there is an important group missing for our union, the visual effects artists, and it is my firm belief that their rightful home is within the IATSE.”

Loeb said IATSE has hired Jim Goodman as a full-time representative with the sole responsibility of organizing for the drive. International reps Steve Aredas, Jamie Fry and Peter Marley had been assigned to the drive and will be reporting to motion picture division director Michael Miller.

Significant segments of the vfx biz are far away from Hollywood. Two notable employers in visual effects — Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and Tippett Studios — are not unionized. Disney announced in March that it was closing San Rafael, Calif.-based ImageMovers Digital, resulting in a loss of 400 union jobs repped by the Animation Guild, which operates as IATSE Local 839.

Former Sony Imageworks exec Jenny Fulle said the drive to organize the industry comes at a time of uncertainty in the vfx biz.

“We are combating tax incentives and lower wages in various locations around the world, including our own backyard,” she said. “Visual effects companies are struggling to stay in business, and jobs are being lost every day to those regions that offer financial incentives. I stand in support of anything moral that helps us stay viable through these tough times and oppose that which causes us to be even less competitive.”

Vfx artist Dave Rand told Daily Variety that he’s excited at the development. “We need to get organized now before it becomes even more difficult with the global expansion of our industry. I spent my last couple years with ImageMovers Digital, one of the few union shops in the vfx industry. This combination formed the best years of my career. Quality of life and good pay make for a very creative person.”

The last major group of showbiz workers to be organized was the approximately 500 casting directors and associates who affiliated with the Intl. Brotherhood of Teamsters in 2005. The Teamsters have also been attempting over the past year to organize Hollywood composers and lyricists into a union.

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