What A Union Does For You

This week the IBEW Union will be holding another informational meeting to continue conversations with artists and technicians about forming a VFX union in the LA area:

Sunday November 7th 1:00pm

The American Legion Hall

5309 S. Sepulveda Blvd.

Culver City, CA 90230

If you intend to have a long term career in the VFX industry I suggest you take some time this Sunday to attend and participate in this meeting. There are many questions to be answered.

For example, how much should artists pay to be a member of this organization?

Should they pay more up front and less as they continue membership or vice versa?

Finally, since I always hear this question:

What Does A Union Do For Its Members?

As a former skeptic of a union who became an adamant supporter after working at an Animation Guild signatory facility, I can tell you it does a lot.

Regardless of what organization we choose to represent us, a union will basically provide us with three things:

  • Portable health and retirement benefits.
  • Paid time off for illness and vacation.
  • Establishment of wage minimums and enforcement of labor laws.

Since most of that is straightforward, I’d like to focus on the portable health and retirement benefits.

I’m delighted to hear that the IBEW will be offering access to the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan.

It’s a health and retirement plan that has become the one stop shop for most union workers in the entertainment industry.

It’s a huge plan that is paid for by employers through hourly contributions and studios through residuals from many of the films you and I work on.

As a former member of the Animation Guild I have personally received benefits that I feel were far superior than many of the non-union facilities.

Why do we need portable benefits?

VFX artists and technical directors are project-to-project workers and bounce around different vfx boutiques, vfx facilities, and animation studios frequently.

Unfortunately each company has it’s own set of health and retirement benefits with various vesting periods.

Some facilities don’t even offer benefits while others have complicated vesting periods that are longer than the length of your employment.

I’ve constantly missed contributions to a 401k because I was on projects that lasted 6-8 months where the eligibility requirements state that I have to be at a facility for over a year.

The potential opportunity in investment growth and tax liabilities can be huge for missing out on those contributions.

The same can be said for health insurance. As one artist put it:

It’s like I have to start my whole life over every time I go to a new facility.

It doesn’t have to be that way. DreamWorks and Disney Animation are signatories to a contract with The Animation Guild which is part of the IATSE.

They provide benefits through MPIPHP so if you get laid off or quit at Disney and get hired at DreamWorks, you can maintain continuing coverage of health and retirement benefits under the same plan.

Health Benefits At A Glance

Here is what I think you should know about the MPIPHP benefits. You can read the details in full here.


You have a choice between PPO, HMO and even get dental and vision coverage: Blue Shield, Kaiser, HealthNet, etc.

Wow, a visual effects artist with vision insurance? What a concept.

Low Costs

Compared to many vfx facilities, the health insurance costs with MPIPHP are much lower. I also contend it’s better than what the Visual Effects Society offers to it’s members. Also, check out this comparision of the plan to Digital Domain.

  • There are no deductibles.
  • There are no premiums.
  • No extra costs to cover your spouse/partner or family.
  • The copayments for doctor visitations etc are from $5 to $40.
  • The maximum out of pocket expenses you will be responsible for in a year range from $800 to $1,100.

Bank Of Hours

As you work at a union facility, you build up a bank of hours to help you keep your insurance when you are not working or working at a non-union facility.

I’ve mentioned many times of how I worked at a union studio for 2 years, voluntarily quit to go to a non-union facility and found out that I was able to keep my health, dental, and vision insurance for almost 2 extra years.

I used this an negotiating leverage against my next employer to pay me more since I didn’t need their weaker health insurance.

Retirement Benefits At A Glance

Details of the retirement benefits can be viewed here. You basically get two retirement plans that are funded by the studios and employers. There is also a supplemental 401k that is usually administered by the union that is entirely funded by the employee if he/she elects to do so.

The Individual Account Plan

After two years, I was fully vested after 450 hours of work each year in over $14,000 in a retirement account that is conservatively invested.

I did not have to put a dime in that account and even posted a copy of my IAP statement here.

The Defined Benefit Account Plan

This is a traditional pension where you are eligible after 5 years of qualified years and paid a set amount of money every month for the rest of your life when you retire.

A qualified year is any calendar year in which somebody works 450 hours or more at a union studio.

So just to qualify all you have to do is manage to work at a union facility for 9 weeks (50 hours a week) a year for 5 years.

This would get easier as more studios sign contracts with the union.

After 5 years you could see an annuity of $400.

After 15 years it would be $1180.

After 30 years  it would be $2358… $2358 paid to you every month after you retire until you die.

Retiree Health Benefits

If you work enough years at various union facilities, you are eligible to receive health insurance for you and your family after you retire and becomes supplemental to Medicare after age 65.

There For You No Matter Where You Go

The money you have in these accounts after you become eligible are there for you when you retire even if you leave the industry or the country.

The Choice Is Yours

Back in the early 2000s Sony Pictures Imageworks had a chance to unionize.

For whatever reasons, it ended with the workers overwhelmingly voting no.

Looking back, many artists regret it.

Regardless, the choice is ultimately yours and whatever choice you make today will echo for the rest of your life.

For some artists who are just happy to work on a cool movie, you probably didn’t even read past the first sentence of this article.

However, if you took the time to read and make it all the way here, you probably have given much thought about your future in this industry.

Why not take a little time on your Sunday and make an effort to make it better.

I’ve been told by many to piss off, that I’m a wanker, and an idiot etc.

Do you think I spend my late nights doing research and writing these articles for me? No.

I’m doing it for the vfx artist who only gets OT after 60 hours.

I’m doing it for the unemployed artist struggling to get health insurance for his family.

I’m doing it for the successful vfx artist who is looking at Plan B options out of the industry because the prospects of longevity in the industry are dim.

That’s what this is all about.

Soldier On.

28 Responses to What A Union Does For You

  1. Soldier –

    Excellent points, as always. As I’ve stated before, I am extremely excited at seeing organization taking root in visual effects, even if another labor organization is getting into the mix. The portability of employer-funded benefits stands second only to the artist-directed contractual protection that is offered by acting collectively. Visual effects artists deserve the same protections and benefits that are enjoyed by just about every other discipline that helps create entertainment today.

    On points of clarification, see the comments below:

    * The MPIPHP Summary Plan Descriptions are updated regularly through the newsletters that are sent to the plan members. While its important to read the SPD, going through the newsletters is equally important to stay abreast of the current plan stipulations. The two that are most pertinent (Fall 09 and Summer 09) can be found at this link: http://www.mpiphp.org/benefits/newsletters/newsletter.htm

    * Eligibility and the Bank of Hours can be tricky to explain. While I’m looking forward to announcing the updated TAG website, I’ve pulled the copy from the benefits page to help explain these two caveats of the plan. You can read that copy at this link http://www.animationguild.org/organize/TAG_MPIHealthPlans.pdf

    While the nay-sayers may try to degrade and besmirch your intentions, no one can call into question your passion for artist protection and overall well-being. I feel it goes unsaid too often, so I’ll take the opportunity here. Thank you very much for the time you take to bring to light the pertinent information and options available to the artists of the industry today. The debt of gratitude owed to you is impossible to quantify.

  2. steve hulett says:

    Wish I could be there, but since I’m a union rep for another labor organization, it won’t be happening.

    But I’ll put in a plug for the Animation Guild anyway, since I think we’re a good home for visual effects employees. (We’ve already repped vfx for decades, have reasonable dues plus a fine little 401(k). Plus we’re a long-time participant in the fabled Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan.)

    Everybody have a good meeting, and work to get yourself union representation with some fine organization. I can attest that it’s well worth it.

  3. Eve says:

    Thanks you!

  4. fed up!!! says:

    I am looking for a Plan B. This industry is built on child labor, (ie. Animation mentor) and foreign subsidies. BLAH!
    I have been going on about a union for the last 10 years and my fellow “artists” thought it was bollocks. Now that these same so-called “artists” procreated and bought housing well beyond their means and are facing down a possible lay off, they sing a brand new tune. A sweet song of sorrow for a job long gone. Unfortunately it’s too late kids. The work in is the UK, Canada and Weta. The time for a union was 5 years ago, when the studios needed L.A. effects houses. You have no leverage with the studios. Sony, DD, R&H, Zoic, ILM, etc. Will never ever, ever sign a union agreement. They barely make ends meet as it is and rely on frequent lay offs to survive. Dream on little dreamer the glory days is long gone. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney closed and re-opened under a different name in order to void the union contract. Pixar ain’t union and Lasseter isn’t a fan. Sorry boys and girls, Tom Cruise doesn’t sell tickets, VFX do, but the studios know that they can farm that stuff out on cheap and it don’t look that bad. As a bonus they can probably start cutting actor salaries soon as they are no longer a draw. Win Win studio Win and the working slob loses. Thank you Gnomen, Thank you Animation Mentor, Thank you selfish, greedy, childish “artists” that refused to see the future and voted down the union. You reap what you sow. I hope you folks enjoyed your cocaine digital fueled golden days, it’s all down hill from here.Peace out!

    • vfxsoldier says:

      I can understand the sentiment and disappointment for artists not being forward looking. I have to disagree that with you that we don’t have leverage.

      As bad as things are, there is still a talent base here that is able to draw work here even with the subsidies overseas. That’s leverage. Hollywood is here.

      If anything, now is a very important time to join a union. I contend that vfx facilities could save money on unionization: The union administers benefits and would get rid of the overhead for facilities to deal with them. The benefits are better and cheaper than anyone else because of the residuals that the big studios pay into the funds.

      • fed up!!! says:

        When ever I work in L.A. I always fill out a rep card, regardless of shop. Unfortunately, I have spend most of the past 5 years working over seas because I follow the work. L.A. Is filled with talent, or was. Most of my comrades are also overseas humping down work where ever it surfaces.

        Look I am 100% behind a union and will be very active in recruiting people to a union if I ever get back state side, but my past experience with these so-called artists has been they are quite self serving as well as cowardly and extremely short sighted.

        I love this business, I love what I do, but the studios and facilities don’t love me back. A person can only take so much abuse before they leave and seek shelter somewhere else. Good luck with your endeavor, I hope people wake up, and walk out.

        In closing I will say we do have leverage. We can walk out before a show finishes. A massive simultaneous all facility (ILM, Sony, DD,etc) would send a clear message that we mean business and can effect their business. Look studios have millions of dollars already invested in a film when it comes to us, if we walk out and hold up that investment it has a bigger knock on effect than a writers or an actors strike. They can stock pile for a writers or actors strike, they cannot for a VFX strike, they are already in the hole for 100 million. The banks what their money and interest is accruing. If these artists wake up we can do what we love, where we love and actually have a decent long term career.

    • Steve Kaplan says:

      Wow .. as much as I too can understand the sentiment, I have to pause and realize this is part of what is fueling the renewed push for representation and organization.

      The recent past (and present) has seen plenty of trashing and rejection of union representation. These same artists are the ones who are now realizing that had they organized back then, how the completely employer and producer funded health and pension benefits would have changed their lives.

      What’s interesting to note, is the numerous times I personally have heard the “We missed the boat” argument. Its generally coupled with other points you made “XYZ will ship their work overseas” or “There is no margin therefore the studios will fight to the death”. There is never a bad time to organize since there is never a bad time to decide that collectively bargained contractual protections are extremely beneficial for you and the entire industry. Sure, artists for a long time were trying to protect their employers in a misguided sense of trust and ownership. Now that most have realized that companies see them as consumable assets, they’ve decided to act in their own best interests. There is never a bad time for that.

  5. Tom says:

    I am living this right now, 7+ years into the VFX industry/ Film Industry. I have 90K+ owed in student loans and almost no retirement even started. Living month-to-month and paying down credit cards is not fun. Unfortunately this is the reality for most people who start out in the VFX industry and even some who have been in the industry for sometime now. With luck maybe you or I will become a visual effects supervisor after 10-20 years of experience.

    That said, I think being a Firefighter is much better than a VFX artist these days. My Grandfather retired at 60 years old with 2 million in his retirement fund and he also has his pension to last him through his retirement. He was a firefighter for about 30+ years.

    I bring this up since most people don’t think about retirement till its too late. Here is an example:

    Let’s say you want to retire at age 60 with your current salary of today and your age is 25. Let’s say for argument sake 100K is your salary.

    You need about 85% of your peak salary for 20-30 years to be comfortable till your ripe old age of 90. That means you need at least 1.75 million in your retirement fund when you hit age 60 if you are planning on living to 80. Adjust for inflation your talking about 8 million dollars you need to retire in 2045. Better start saving or looking for a rich partner. Your best bet is to have a partner who is not in the industry.

    Here is a retirement calculator:

    In any case. I am all for unionization. In the end the companies pay less. They just don’t realize it now. The union can offer a better deal for both the employer and employee. Some unnamed big companies will never unionize because they believe it prevents the creative process. I strongly disagree with this falsification of information. Unions make happier and more productive employees. You can even have employees who are willing to get paid less if you contribute more to there retirement.

    I would take a 20% pay cut if the company offered 100% matching on my retirement and 4 weeks vacation pay each year compared to no matching and 2 weeks vacation. But companies don’t want to bargain. They just want to cut and save money without looking at longevity.

  6. fed up!!! says:

    Steve don’t get me wrong, I am all for union representation. I briefly worked for a union studio that did NOT cover my enrollment fees into the guild. After being laid off I could not take honorable withdrawal because I had not paid the initial fee. Because I believe so deeply in the “idea” of a union I paid out of pocket even though I had a new born baby and very little cash. Since then I have worked for a union studio exactly zero times. Do I regret it, nope, quite proud of it actually.
    I will continue to fill out rep cards, my beef is that I am usually the only sap doing so since my “artistic” brethren seem to be blind to the reality of our business, or scared shitless.
    I would love to retire, that’s why I am taking up another trade I can practice in addition to VFX work. That’s right, I have to have two jobs to ensure I am not eating dog food at 75. As I stated previously, this isn’t that hard to figure out, the fault lay with the worker; If the employee stands up, the employer will listen because someone has to do the work and Lord knows owner and/or producers can’t.
    Oh by the way I have been doing this for 12 years and am crabby and old. Your doing a great thing solider, love your blog. Thanks for listening

    • skaplan839 says:

      I started to write my reply and had to leave it and come back a few hours later. When I finally posted it, you had replied already. I apologize if I sounded as if I was attacking, I certainly was not.

      Send me an email at skaplan@animationguild.org and let me know where you’re at and a good time to meet. We’ll start discussing how to best organize the facility you’re working at, to start.

  7. Hopefull says:

    So I just got back from the IBEW meeting. I’ll give my impressions in quick bullet points.

    – I love and appreciate IBEW’s outreach and holding of meetings (ARE YOU LISTENING TAG!?)

    – I was not impressed at all by their knowledge of the VFX industry and felt uneasy about the possibly of being represented by them when they seemed to know so little.

    – The main guy talking (main so cal rep) gave me a bad impression…he seemed to not be really listening to the questions asked of him and kept giving either vague or indirect answers a lot. People had to ask/rephrase 2 or 3 times to get him to address the questions

    – The health benefits between them and IATSE are exactly the same since they’re all in the same film industry fund

    – Someone asked the difference between them and The Animation Guild (IATSE) and essentially he said They care and make an effort and go out, while IATSE (TAG) doesn’t. Aside from that comment, which left a bad taste in my mouth, it troubled me he didn’t know anything about the other major source of representation in the vfx industry.

    – A few people expressed that the fact that the IBEW was out there holding meetings putting forth an effort was a big enough difference for them. And I agree with that sentiment. What good is a other longer standing organization if they don’t put forth the effort? TAG needs to get on their game and start holding meetings…letting people know they exist and have ACTUAL experience in VFX/Animation industry.

    – Essentially the gist of the meeting was that they’ll keep holding meetings and hopefully people keep coming and bringing more people. But that union representation was going to have to be initiated and organized from within by the artists and then they would come in at the very end once they had 65% of the company signed on rep cards.

    – There was a rough plan set for beginning of Dec for the next meeting. I’ll be there. It was great to see other smart dedicated artists with the passion to fix the things that are broken. I have some hope now. I just hope the IBEW had a bit more knowledge of the industry

    • vfxsoldier says:

      Excellent analysis. I’ve re-posted your comment.

      • Hopefull says:

        Thanks, In my head I just keep coming back to the fact that they didn’t really seem to know anything about VFX/Animation. I figured after have had two previous meetings about representing artists they would have done research and learned a little bit.

        I got the impression that we would be simply another notch in the belt of their large member base which is NOT artist based. Representing artists is a COMPLETELY different beast then group that provides manual labor I feel. The issues we face are much different.

        As things stand now I’d feel more comfortable with TAG representation I think. But at this point they are nowhere to be found. And from that meeting they lost the “public relations” battle. The speaker even hucked it up. “well we’re here holding meetings…Where are they?”

        And I’ll it leave at that…where are you TAG? A group of 40 or so enthusiastic artists are going to go out and spread the word about a Union that, in my opinion, doesn’t seem to be in the best position to represent us. Up Your game.

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