Sausage Party and Nitrogen – an open letter

To the VFX & CG-feature communities,

Many of you will have heard in the last week about working conditions on the recently-released “Sausage Party”. What started in the comments section on Cartoon Brew has now been reported by The Washington Post, The LA Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and many more besides. It’s sad to say, but stories of poor working conditions are becoming an embarrassingly regular occurrence in our industry. From the infamous MPC Variety article, to the Life of Pi Oscar debacle, time and again we’ve found our industry’s troubles in the spotlight. We’ve seen reports of a client saying “If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job”. We’ve seen a facility exec tell an audience that if you don’t like long hours then you should get out. We’ve seen hundreds of VFX artists left off the credits of Star Trek Beyond. We’ve seen friends and colleagues forced to uproot their lives and move around the globe to chase tax-breaks and production whims. The question is this: when are things finally going to change?

The problems in our industry are well-known and well-documented. Whether because of over-promising to clients, underbidding to compete with tax breaks, creative mismanagement, inexperience or a simple lack of people, the result is always the same. Workers are pressured to meet impossible deadlines by regularly working late for little-to-no compensation during “crunch-time”. The “lucky ones” are rolled onto another project, where the whole sorry cycle repeats again and again until they burn out and leave. The “unlucky ones” are thanked for their hard work by being laid off. Many of us in this industry spend our lives jumping between companies and countries, trying to find a stable income and work-life-balance in a fickle industry that increasingly allows neither. And yet, our industry continues to cling to the antiquated and destructive motto that “we must deliver at all costs“.

However – things are changing. A process has started in London in the last 12 months which has given our industry a legitimate ray of hope. We launched a branch of BECTU for VFX workers in the UK, and gathered hundreds of members. We launched recognition bids at MPC and at Framestore, and we fought for representation for VFX workers at all the big London VFX studios. This has sent shockwaves through the industry. Our work is ongoing, and there’s still lots to do. However, we’ve started a process here, and we intend to see it through.

There are three groups of people we would like to address:

1. To the animators at Nitrogen. Congratulations to all of you on the release of Sausage Party. The film’s been a great success, and you should be very proud. We’re sorry to hear about the poor working conditions many of you experienced; that you encountered ‘intimidating staff into working past official studio hours, disciplinary measures utilizing fear tactics […] (such as threatening to terminate employment), implying that other departments are working overtime “voluntarily” as a reason to deny compensation’. We’re sorry to hear that some of you were threatened with blacklisting, or were denied credits for your hard work because you dared to ask for fair treatment. The fact that this happened on a CG feature – where your employer has even greater freedom over who to credit than a typical VFX vendor – makes things even worse.

To each one of you that stood up for fair treatment, by signing your petition or by speaking out to the press – a massive “well done” from all of us. It’s not easy to take a stand on working conditions in this industry (we know, we’ve been there!), and we hope that others will follow your lead. We feel – and we hope you agree – that this is a discussion that our entire industry should be having. You are not alone. The VFX branch of BECTU and its members have heard your story, and we stand with you. We hope that this is a turning point, and that management at Nitrogen listen to your concerns. But if not, you should know that you still have options. It absolutely doesn’t have to be this way. You’ve all experienced first-hand just how important it is that we have a voice in how we’re treated. This is exactly what a union is for. We know that our sister labour union in the US and Canada, the IATSE, would love to help you improve your working conditions. After all the coverage you’ve had in the press, we would eagerly encourage you to reach out to them. Nothing is impossible if you all speak to each other, talk about this, and get organised. It’s making a difference here in London, and it can make a difference for you too. Don’t let this chance to improve things go to waste. If there’s anything we can do to help, then please do get in touch.

2. To management at Nitrogen. We can’t imagine that it’s been an easy week for you. To see stories like this about your company after all the hard work on Sausage Party must be difficult. We’re not here to point fingers. We know that experiences vary by project and by team, and we don’t imagine that all of your employees are unhappy. However, judging by the number of people speaking out, there’s clearly a problem here – not just at Nitrogen, but across much of the industry. Nitrogen is not the first company to step on the giant landmine that is VFX working conditions; it is merely the latest.

It’s not in anyone’s interest – yours or ours – to see stories like this emerge every time a facility tries to talk proudly about its work after a tough project. We hope that you and other facility owners will agree that things cannot go on like this. We want to see public outpourings of anger like this and the MPC Variety article become a thing of the past. We’re sure that you do too.

Now is the time for facility owners to listen and to show leadership. Our industry is facing a crisis in working conditions, and to dismiss this outpouring from Nitrogen’s employees as the work of a disgruntled or opportunistic few would be a grave mistake. Hundreds have joined us here in the UK because there is a clear and widespread feeling in our industry that things cannot carry on the way they are. We – your workforce – don’t want a fight. We don’t want to cheat you out of money, or to make you uncompetitive. The vast majority of us just want a normal work-life balance and the chance to bring stories to life. We would love to work constructively with you to make this happen. However, we cannot do so if you bury your heads in the sand, deny the problem, or refuse to engage. We’ve spoken to many senior figures in this industry off-the-record, and we know that many of you share our frustrations in how this industry operates. We would challenge all facility owners in this industry to ask their employees to anonymously answer the following question: “What does this company do to protect me from mistreatment when a project goes wrong?”. If the answer is “nothing”, then it’s time to reach out to other facilities, and to talk about a shared solution. Without common industry-wide standards on issues like overtime, this industry will consume itself – and then we all lose.

3. To everyone working in VFX and CG features. We’ve talked to many hundreds of you now. Some of you are happy, but a great many more of you are not. We’ve heard your stories. The late nights, the weekends. The hundreds of hours of unpaid work. The missed holidays, the uncertainty of short-term contracts being extended week-by-week. The stress. The crunch-time. The fear of speaking out because of blacklisting. The trouble getting showreel material. The wage suppression. We’ve seen you share the stories, we’ve seen some of you even turn your profile pictures green. But unfortunately, sharing the stories isn’t enough. Things won’t change until we act.

Things started here in London when a group of us had enough, and decided to do something. We invited friends and colleagues out for lunch and coffee to discuss working conditions. We made chat groups, we shared ideas. We challenged each other to sign up, we set friendly challenges to see who could get the most colleagues to join. We made leaflets, we spoke out. We acted. And when we did, the facilities really sat up and took notice.

So what about you, dear reader? Have you joined a union? Have you talked to your friends and co-workers about joining a union? Because if not (and we hate to put it this way) – then you are currently part of the problem. Until we decide as a workforce that enough is enough, until we choose to establish a voice for ourselves, this steady drip-feed of horror stories is likely to continue. The facilities have had years to address these problems, but as we can see from the stream of stories like this one, their efforts to date have been sorely lacking. Crunch-time and insecurity remain rife within our industry. The next big story could be your next project. Ask yourself this: “Would I be prepared to stay in this industry and work at this level until I retire in my 60s?” If the answer is no, then it’s time to get off the fence and do something.

We would like to invite everyone around the world who’s read Nitrogen’s story and recognised these horror stories to join their local VFX union. We’ve started a process here in London. However, our recognition bids are only one piece of the puzzle. If you’re waiting for us to fix everything for you world-wide, then you’re in for a long wait. This is a big industry, and we can’t change the whole thing without you. We need to act together.

We’ve seen first-hand the improvements that happen at the workplace when workers get together in large numbers to declare “it’s time for a change“. We hope that you’ll get to see it too. There are unions and groups of people around the world that would love to help us finally improve the working conditions in our industry. The question is: will you let them?

Thank you for your time.

Kind regards,
VFX Union UK

UK VFX Union featured on fxguide podcast!

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Paul Evans, the BECTU national official for the vfx branch and Joe Pavlo, the vfx branch chair had a chat with Jeff Heuser from the fxguide podcast to talk about their work in the UK to establish a Visual Effects Union. A lot of ground was covered from the explosive growth of the vfx union in the UK over the last year, to some of the issues facing people working in the visual effects industry and a look ahead at the future of the union in the visual effects industry.

listen to the episode here:

fxpodcast #303: UK Union update

We discuss the latest info about UK visual effects artists who are seeking union representation. Joe Pavlo (artist) and Paul Evans (BECTU) are our guests. Unpaid overtime, fear, social media, how to organize, collusion, opting out of overtime… just a few of the things Joe and Paul discuss with our Jeff Heusser

also available to download in iTunes

Inspired? Why not come along to the Thursday VFX LunchMeet every week from 1-2pm in the courtyard at St. Anne’s Church, Wardour Street (nr. Shaftesbury Avenue) and find our more about the vfx union – or just cut to the chase and join the union right now!

Large BECTU survey points to serious concerns from MPC’s visual effects workers

full article on BECTU’s website here

Bare necessities missing for VFX workers at MPC

“Moving Picture Company appears to encapsulate everything that is wrong with employment in UK VFX in microcosm” says BECTU, the media and entertainment union.

In a large-scale survey of people who have worked at London’s Moving Picture Company (MPC), conducted in the week leading up to the UK premiere ofJungle Book, BECTU has found a workforce, both past and present, that has serious concerns about the company’s coercive working culture, with widespread complaints from world-class VFX artists about pressures to work excessive unpaid overtime.

In late 2015, BECTU started actively recruiting at MPC, which provided VFX services on Jungle Book.  In campaigning for union recognition, members were taken aback by management’s hostility to this move; recruitment literature was removed and discussion about the union was banned in staff forums. Thankfully, part of the company’s attempts to keep the union out resulted in small improvements to management attitudes towards their staff, but – as BECTU’s survey shows – significant concerns remain.

In particular, members were conscious of unfair pressure resulting from the company’s culture of short-term contracts. MPC has an employee-profile that dramatically contradicts UK Screen’s claims that “91% of the UK VFX workforce have a permanent contract.”

Short term contracts increase workplace pressures

Instead, MPC appears to have an overwhelming preference for short-term contracts, with a surprising number of individual respondents (in free-text comments) making a direct link between this and the climate of pressure from managers, particularly on unpaid overtime.

Significant numbers of staff were prepared to say that:

  • MPC is not interested in a fair dialogue with independently-minded employees
  • they have little faith in the ‘Crew Forum’ as a means of resolving problems fairly (current employees were significantly sceptical)
  • work-life balance for VFX artists at MPC is often very bad.

There were widespread fears around:

  • refusing to work unpaid overtime
  • raising legitimate grievances with management
  • management finding out about individuals’ BECTU membership.

There was a significant number of respondents who complained of “unwelcome pressure” or feeling harassed by colleagues / management, and an even larger number of respondents who said that they knew of colleagues who had experienced such pressure. A very clear majority of the respondents who knew about unwelcome pressure believed that reporting such behaviour would be frowned upon (in many cases because management were the ones behaving badly).

Paul Evans, BECTU national official, supporting VFX workers said:

“These results are very disturbing and we hope that MPC will agree to work with us on a full independent survey on this subject so that it can be dealt with properly. The VFX sector is now a central part of the UK film industry. It is astonishing that most survey respondents were frightened that MPC would find out that they are members of a trade union, and that there was a widespread fear of raising concerns, reporting unwelcome pressure and asking for a responsive management.

“MPC appears to encapsulate everything that is wrong with employment in UK VFX in microcosm – particularly the way the business is structured to pressure people into working long hours without being paid for overtime. In a few clear cases, respondents reported direct bullying and intimidation from managers.

“If the UK VFX industry is to retain the talent that it needs to survive and grow, it needs to be a race to the top, and not to the bottom. We need London to lose its reputation for excessive unpaid overtime, and this forms part of BECTU’s wider campaign to ensure that everyone in the film industry is paid for all of the hours that they work.”

 

BECTU is the media and entertainment union for the UK

read the full article on BECTU’s website here

 

This Thursday and every Thursday, union members and other vfx people get together at our weekly lunch meet where we chat about things that are important to people in the vfx industry.

We will be meeting this Thursday April 14th  1:00 – 2:00 pm  @ Kingley Ct, Carnaby St. 

Look for the green flag!

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JOIN THE DISCUSSION! Sick Pay: Part 2

How does your sick pay stack-up?

On our previous blog post we talked about sick pay, but do you ever wonder how your sick pay might stack up comparably? How it might stack up to other unionized sick pay?

The VFX BECTU Union Branch welcomes any company’s decision to give employees entitlement to some sick pay and it’s great to see employees speaking up and having serious dialogue about sick pay with some employers, but in reality offering 0.5 days per completed month, up to a maximum of 5.5 days within the first year of employment is peanuts in comparison to other employers in the media and entertainment industries.

The fact that so many employees in VFX are on short-term contracts means that even this paltry offer rarely ever matures into anything that would cover more than a couple of days paid sickness leave. Especially when we as workers can feel guilty about using those days during crunch and having our colleagues pick-up the slack when we’re all a team and under the gun together. Not to mention that it seems more and more these days we are in shorter deadlines and crunchtime with more work to do than ever.

Those sick days are of course used or lost and do not accumulate and when you change jobs, you must reenter another qualifying period even if you are returning to a company whom you’ve been employed with before.

Although something is better than nothing, not every visual effects company has had this policy. In fact, while not London based, Rhythm and Hues actually offered cumulative employment periods. That mean that returning contract employees didn’t have to re-enter a qualifying period if rehired. Their previous time employed, even with breaks, was counted overall for qualifying for extra holidays, sick days and medical.

We are aware that the VFX companies have a joint HR working group that is hosted by UK Screen and establishing something like this as a cross-sector arrangement would be a welcome development for the companies to offer fairly standard sickness terms to their owns staff and could help freelancers carry days with them to new companies. We also think that a cross sector arrangement might be beneficial helping visual effects companies come up to par with similar employers in the media and entertainment industries.

BECTU has seen comparative surveys of London-based media companies holiday offerings and the BBC turns out to have the lowest sick-pay provision – and even they pay up to four weeks sick pay for each illness, and up to 13 weeks for all absences to all staff who have worked less than two years in the company (the entitlement doubles after two years). There is no qualifying period on this.

If anything, because so many staff are on short-term contracts, we would expect an employer like this to offer much more generous terms. In the West End Theatres, while there are qualifying periods for earning more than Statutory Sick Pay, the industry has recognised that short-term contracts are a problem and the employers who are members of the Society of West End Theatres often use ‘continuous employment in The West End’ rather than continuous employment with individual employers as the qualifying measure for terms and conditions that vary based on length of service.

This makes sense to us on at the VFX BECTU Branch, after all, many times it’s not the employees or the company’s fault when there are gaps in projects. We fully understand that things get pushed, deadlines change, and sequences get cut on the editing room floor. However, we must admit that this is felt most by those who have contributed so much to the success of countless Hollywood Blockbuster that make millions who inturn then must deal with uncertainty and gaps in employment. While the gaps may be unavoidable, surely starting over and over at the same companies and reentering qualifying periods is something we can change.  As shown above this would be completely achievable and is already done by the West End Theatres and indeed was even implemented by another visual effects company.

This small change could make a world of difference for visual effects employees. It could even be broadened into a shared pension scheme, so workers don’t have to continuously roll individual pensions from one company to the next as they switch jobs and instead work through a “continuous employment in London Visual Effects” as the qualifying measure for terms and conditions that vary based on the length of service.

This Thursday and every Thursday, union members and other vfx people get together at our weekly lunch meet where we chat about things that are important to people in the vfx industry.

We will be meeting this Thursday March 24  1:00 – 2:00 pm  @ Kingley Ct, Carnaby St. 

Look for the green flag

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Thank The Union For Paid Holiday!

If you’re on a short term contract (i.e. less than 1 year) at one of London’s Visual Effects facilities, here’s a question for you:

Why do the facilities give you four weeks paid holiday?

Two reasons… 

1) Because if the facilities gave you any less paid holiday, it would be illegal!

2) Because the media and entertainment union BECTU (your visual effects union) launched a legal challenge against UK legislation in 1999 taking the fight for freelance contract workers all the way to the European Court of Justice

BECTU was successful and the courts ruled in June 2001 that the UK government was in breach of European employment law in denying freelance workers and those on short-term contracts the right to four weeks paid annual leave.

So never forget, before June 2001 if you were a freelance contract worker, you were not entitled to four weeks paid holiday like other staff colleagues. Now, thanks to BECTU fighting for your rights, paid holiday for freelance contract workers is the law.

Do you want a good reason to join the union? That’s a pretty good reason. How about these… 

Do you want to keep your four weeks of paid holiday? 

Do you think that businesses would like to get out of having to give you paid holiday if they could

Do you think their lobbyists are working on ways to erode or remove this benefit right now

BECTU is the only force that fights for your interests when legislation is reviewed or new laws come up for a vote. 

This is what the union does for us – Thank you BECTU!

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Support the union. Join now.

An open letter to all staff at MPC

Dear MPC Employee,

We are sure that you’ve heard rumblings about a bid by BECTU to achieve Trade Union Recognition at MPC. We thought that it was time for the union to write to you directly – addressing some of the concerns that have been raised with us over recent weeks.

We initially asked for union recognition in the Compositing and Roto-Prep departments of MPC because most of the staff in those departments asked us to do so.

Most of the staff in those departments (65% on the day that we lodged our request) were already BECTU members. Your colleagues did this because they want a voice in the industry that they work in. So many of you are on short-term contracts, and because of this, our members told us that they were frightened to raise their concerns because they feared being labelled as a trouble-maker.

We understand that, and we will not be disclosing the names of our individual members to employers.

Having a formal role for BECTU at MPC would end that worry anyway, and that’s why your colleagues requested it. They have told us that they don’t like the assumption that they will work long, arbitrary hours of overtime. They don’t like getting emails – at 9pm – berating them for not being at their desks.

They don’t like the culture of short-term contracts and short notice periods. They don’t like the lack of structure in their careers with the company. In other sectors of the film industry, there are training paths and established career structures, and our members have a perception that their employers don’t care about that.

Since we lodged our first ‘recognition’ letter, our membership at MPC has grown considerably. Our total London VFX membership is four times bigger than it was in Summer 2015, and we are now thinking of broadening our campaign to other departments. But before we can do this, we need you to join the union.

We would like to deal with one important issue that has been raised by MPC Staff.

Every single bit of union activity will be 100% directed by BECTU members. Our work will not be driven by BECTU Officials or the wider union. We are a very democratic union.

For a long time, BECTU has been trying to have a serious conversation with VFX employers about the long-hours situation. We have found it almost impossible to get the employers to engage with us properly, and because of this, BECTU’s members asked us to mount a ‘Paid Overtime’ campaign.

We have to run campaigns like that when we can’t have a serious dialogue with employers. We would much rather sit down and negotiate ways that long hours can be limited and planned-for.

To be clear, we have no intention of asking for, or agreeing to, anything that will damage basic rates of pay. Other VFX employers manage this situation in better ways and we want serious conversations with MPC about how we can do this here. Paid overtime is only the solution if employers won’t be sensible and negotiate properly on this issue. Just to underline…

  • 100% of our policy positions with MPC will be decided, democratically, by BECTU members working for the company
  •  100% of our negotiations will be directed by BECTU members working for the company

We will not argue for anything without agreeing it with our members first. Our members love their work and they want their company to succeed. We are not planning to do anything that will hurt MPC. We are attempting to make MPC do something that it plainly doesn’t want to do: Negotiate with its staff about the working conditions that they are employed under.

Our members have reported that, since union activity started, that some working conditions have improved slightly, and one or two perks have started appearing in your inboxes. The 9pm emails have stopped…. for now.

We don’t want to lose these gains

We hope that you will consider joining BECTU. We enclose a membership form that offers a discounted joining rate if we get your form back (in the enclosed FREEPOST envelope) before February 21st 2016.

In the meantime, please keep an eye on http://vfxforum.org – the VFX Union website – you will find details of our regular lunchtime meetups, and hear what other London VFX workers have to say about their working conditions.

We think that you deserve a voice.waiting

With best wishes

BECTU London VFX Branch

Download PDF here: An open letter to all staff at MPC

 

Want to find out more? Come to our Thursday VFX LunchMeet every week at Kingley Court, Carnaby Street from 1:00-2:00 (look for the Green Flag!)