Staff Infections

No not the medical kind, I’m talking about the recent infection of staff position offers hitting VFX artists at various facilities in California. I’ve been hearing:

I was interested in checking out the union stuff but I’ve finally been offered a staff position!

My advice: if you are offered staff, accept it. Benefits and a “permanent job” are great but take it with grain of salt. Look, the VFX organization drive is the worst kept secret in the world. Everyone knows about it, even the facility executives.

One very effective way to prevent unionization is offering concessions such as staff positions. It’s strategically smart. I suspect the anticipated argument against unionization will be “oh if we go union we’ll have to get rid of staff positions and go back to contracts!”

History has been unkind to those who have fallen for this:

Everybody who’d been there at Sony as permanent staff liked the profit sharing and matching 401(k) Plan contributions they got from the company. So they voted “No,” and convinced most of the temporary employees to cast their ballots the same way.

And some time after that, a lot of them got laid off and they lost their high-end benefits. The people who stayed on were told they had to go to production hire status, so they got none of the goodies they’d been getting before. And a bunch of them said to me, “You know, if we had this to do over again, we’d probably vote “yes.” …

The truth is the contract positions have always been the intention of management as a model that mimics physical production. I’m sure if the VFX organization drive fails, things will go right back to normal:

(Imageworks is) shifting from employing artists full-time to a production crew model, in which most are hired on a project-by-project basis, and only key people are kept on permanently.
“It’s part of the maturation of the vfx business. It’s become more like physical production,” said Imageworks exec VP-general manager Randy Lake.

I completely understand the reason behind going to a physical production crew based model. However, a key compenent to the physical production model is having a union for workers to receive portable benefits that can cover their families in between gigs. Almost every physical production nationwide is unionized.

Soldier On.


9 Responses to Staff Infections

  1. skaplan839 says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve also heard artists tell me that they’ve been taking staff jobs at various studios around town.

    It seems to fly in the face of the argument that Scott Ross echoed in your recent post. If margins are indeed narrow to non-existent, how could studios afford the extra cost of paying for benefits for new staff employees? Why would studios want to risk their business by staffing employees?

    By my estimation, because its more important to them to protect the imbalance of power in the workplace. It is more important for the effects houses to fight to keep a contract that would set minimums and enforce accepted standards from being put in front of them to negotiate.

    I also see this as a good thing for artists. I agree, take the staff positions and then sign a representation card. Then, when the studio threatens to take the staff positions away, argue that you’re just looking out for their best interests by trying to help increase their profits.

    Steve Kaplan
    Labor Organizer
    The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE

  2. Skitten says:

    Being staff doesn’t protect you from being laid off. In fact in CA at least contract may be better because at least you have everything in black and white in the contract. Being staff seems more like vague promises.

    I’d be interested in hearing a knowledgable opinion on this.

    • Marcus says:

      Agreed about being on staff vs. misclassified as a contractor not making much of a difference about getting fired. You can be laid off just as easily as anyone else, except that you usually have the vague promise of being among the “last in line” when work dries up.

      From personal experience, it’s also only a matter of time until facilities slash their more or less crappy benefits down even more shortly after moving more people to staff. Oh, and then there’s guys who work as “staff without benefits”, which blew my mind the first time I heard about it.


    • Winston Smith says:

      I can’t think of any state or federal laws that prevent ANYONE from being laid off. Perhaps only US Supreme Court Justices are untouchable. So the idea that some form of employment exists in vfx that guarantees your job security is fantasy.

      Staff, contract, union or non-union has no legal bearing on you being laid-off or not, to the best of my knowledge.

      I would say in general, that in the absence of any other mutually agreed upon employment contract terms, if you are a “staff” employee in California, your employment status is considered “at-will”. Which basically means that you can leave at anytime for any reason and/or the company can dismiss you at any time for any reason (although there are considerable state and federal legal protections and regulations that companies must comply with).

      If you are a “staff” employee, then you should ask for a written memo detailing the terms of your employment including, but not limited to, benefits (if any) and terms of dismissal/firing/lay-offs. Most if not all of the larger vfx studios have Employee Handbooks with this info. If the company that you are working for does not have one then they are, in my opinion and experience, not very professional or business-savy – and may be exposing themselves to a considerable amount of legal liability in regards to labor and employment issues.

      In other words, being staff may seem like “vague promises” only if you – the employee – allow this to be the case. Get it in writing.

      Being “staff” may or may not be a good thing. If you work for a good company with good benefits, then maybe being staff is an excellent thing. But if you work for a company that does not offer good pay, benefits, etc. then you should seriously consider just what exactly the point of being “staff” is.

      I think it’s great if you can be a production-hire employee or true independent contractor and are happy and able to pay for your own health care/insurance, disability insurance, retirement funds, etc. I personally know may vfx artists that do this. If you can do this, then more power to you.

      One of the best aspects of being in a union however, is the portability of health insurance and retirement benefits. If you are bouncing between shows and facilities you can maintain the same benefits at a lower cost than you can as an individual (it’s very difficult to buy individual health insurance policies that can compare to group coverage in terms of value).

      Come to think of it, what we really need is a table comparing the relative benefits of staff employee, production hire employee, independent contractor, union and non-union. And perhaps also a decision diagram (similar to the “should I work for free” diagram that Soldier posted earlier).

      That might help to clarify the arguments for all interested parties.

    • Winston Smith says:

      One more thought about being “staff”.

      If by being “staff” that means that the company continues to employ AND pay you EVEN WHEN THEY HAVE NO WORK (for weeks or months) – then, yes, being staff is obviously a good thing compared to being let go when a show ends.

      In the absence of this condition and the absence of any meaningful benefits, then “staff” has no substantial meaning at all.

  3. Vfxartist says:

    Just to clarify,

    Many of the “staff” positions are for these stereo shops backed by indian or german money.  They have supposedly secured stereo work for the next several years.  This makes some sense considering the eventual conversion of large film vault libraries to stereo, similar to what happened to HD and Dvd over a decade ago. 

    This has been strained further by the very short term demand for artist to complete the green lantern film which needed last minute retooling.

    This explains the current, short term demand.  This has prompted some studios to staff up. This does not indicate any sort of long term longevity, nor does it change outsourcing potential, and it especially doesn’t indicate that how vfx does business has changed. There is still a lot of speculating about stereo business, speculating on subsidies and future demand.

    All that being said, I will say again, the only thing certain about the future is that no job is certain.  Be it staff, contract, over seas, illegal, whatever your flavor.  Ask any company offering staff what their 1 year plan is…  2 year…. 5 year…. And if they say stereo, that doesn’t count.  New software, processes and foreign labor is being developed month to month that could make these seemingly fat months lean real quick.  

    If you are staff, consider yourself lucky.  Not better, smarter, more talented or more well connected than contractors, but only luckier.  And that luck can run out at ANY time.  This industry has many graveyards, not to mention foreclosures, made up of the careers of the arrogant and prideful.  Of the reactionary and not the pre-emptive.  If you think you are safer than anyone else, you may want to rethink that. Very recent history has proven that hoping for next year being better than this year isn’t enough.

    One of the few things you can try to plan for is your financial and physical/emotional health.  And doing so collectively is you best option.  You have far better purchasing power and coverage.  Iatse and Motion Picture dwarfs anything else out there that an individual or company can offer.  Considering the way residuals work will be a first for vfx.

    All I can tell fellow vfx artist is to both think hard about your medium to long term future, as well as to empathize with the artist around you who aren’t staff.  Vfx has been one of the few diciplines in production operated by so many lone wolves working physically together, but not necessarily as a team.  You see it in the vendors not having a trade organization, allowing the studios to divide and conquer them, and you see it in the employees who don’t organize, allowing the vendors to use the same tactics used on them by the studios to divide and conquer them;  with backstage wage colluding, “recruiters” (organized wage colluding), 1099 misclassification, day-rate-rape, and even the new classification of “staff” as being an employee of the company vs a contractor who has done the same work in the same seat for years, but is not an employee.  This is another false value being applied to a classification of an employee.  Where contract employees should work harder, and “hang in there”, and just maybe… just maybe, you will become staff.

    In the end, organizing vfx creates an organization that specialzes only in the welfare if the represented employees.  Without such representation, actors, writers would get no residuals from internet streaming of their content. Notice how many more commercials are on Hulu now DESPITE paying $8 a month.   Notice the popularity of streaming from apple and amazon.  Notice how much comcast is willing to pay for its own content.  Thats all revenue that trickles down to artist in the form of benefits from the Guilds.  

    VFX has an honorary society that claims its “switzerland” when it comes to labor related matters, yet receives income from, amongst others, vfx vendors:

    If I were donating hundreds of thousands to an “honorary society”, i’d make damn sure they weren’t “switzerland” on areas of my interest.  In fact, VES has board members that ran trade schools like Gnomen, as well as vfx talent agent like DAA.  Im not saying this to villify VES.  Having such leaders in the only organization for vfx makes sense.  The problem is that we have no such organization for the business & ethics side of vfx (trade organization), nor do we have one for the labor side of vfx (guild or union).  This creates an imbalance, and lets be frank, we all know colluding happens within VES, just listen to their publicized summit meetings. A false value is created with awards and ceremonies while the business is drowning in red ink and speculation, and workers are experiencing worse conditions. I wonder how many shows that won VES awards violated labor laws and/or put the very company in financial risk to work on such a “cool” project.  And heres the engine of perpetual delerium: as senior houses shutter in debt, new hungry companies prop open, eager to “prove” themselves, often underbidding.  And in a downward spiral dance, its these most hungry companies that often violate labor laws, often selling the prestige angle to the employees.  All for a “trophy”.

    Having just one organization for vfx, and one centered on prestige and awards, is an imbalance.  Its like a diet of just sweets (awards), and no substinance (in this case a systainable business with a healthy and propering labor force).  Boring stuff like this usually tasks the video game attention span of many vfx artist thats normally preocupied with the here and now, multiplied by whats cool.  I don’t know what to tell you other than to ask yourself:  

    what is your plan for the future?

    The step in securing your own future is going to this meeting, signing a rep card, and ensuring that you future prosperity and security isn’t left to ” speculating”.  In fact its secured in an organization who has decades of history in securing the future of the artist they represent.

    • Winston Smith says:

      Nice post.

      VES + “Switzerland” = Pathetic. Not to mention morally bankrupt.

      Does anyone know if VES even has a Code of Ethics for its members?

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Great post.

      I mentioned the VES acting like Switzerland when they made it clear to the 891 organizer she was not welcomed to their pub event (The Sockpuppet Producer post)

      I find it funny that people complain about union dues but don’t complain about ves membership dues.

      If I wanted to someone to pat me on the back for 200 bucks I’d go see a masseuse!

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