Won't I be fired if my employer finds out I've joined a union?

No – that would be illegal. UK law is crystal clear on this – no company can dismiss or discriminate against you for joining a union or taking part in it. As a member of BECTU, you get access to legal advice and representation. If a company tried to discriminate against you for being a member, we’d take them to an employment tribunal on your behalf and fight for your rights. We always protect our members.

BECTU membership is also entirely confidential – the only people who know that you’re a member are the people you tell yourself. Many of our members are very open to their employers and each other about their membership, but if you’d rather keep your support private, then you don’t have to tell anyone.

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Wouldn't a union put our VFX companies out of business?

No, quite the opposite – it would make them stronger.

Almost every other branch of the film industry is unionised (many of them since the earliest days of film), yet Hollywood has still reported record profits for years. Disney and Dreamworks are both unionised, and both remain world-leading companies.

Everywhere you look, you find the same pattern – unions make companies more efficient, not less. Paying for overtime pushes a company to fix its problems properly, instead of hiding from them by asking people to work for free. Repeated studies have shown that overtime is a false economy – excessive working hours actually mean that less work gets done, not more.

The rest of the film industry treats its workers fairly and pays overtime. Why should the UK VFX industry be any different?

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Is overtime in the VFX industry really that bad?

Yes, unfortunately it is. In a 2013 survey of UK VFX workers:

  • 81% said that they’d been pressured or bullied into working overtime for free on films;
  • 77% knew someone who had recently left the industry because they couldn’t keep up with the workloads, overtime and poor working conditions;
  • 83% said it was difficult or very difficult to raise a family while working in VFX.

In a separate worldwide survey of over 600 VFX workers, 59.9% of respondents claimed to have worked 16 continuous hours or longer in one shift (with 18% reporting having worked over 24 hours). When a poorly-researched article was published on Variety discussing how “well” one UK VFX company was allegedly treating its workers, over 600 comments were posted in reply detailing horrendous working conditions. Those of us on the VFX branch committee have personally seen spouses driven to tears because they never get to see their partner any more. We’ve seen friends forced to work for weeks without a single day off.

The numbers are clear; this is not just a handful of people complaining. This is clearly a serious issue across the whole VFX industry, and one that urgently needs to be fixed. We now finally have a chance to fix it here in the UK – but only if enough VFX workers agree and choose to join us.

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How can the VFX companies afford to pay overtime?

The simplest way would be by charging the clients more if they make difficult requests that will need extra hours or workers.

Paying overtime shouldn’t be a problem for most VFX companies, though. Most of the major VFX companies have branches in Canada, and these Canadian VFX branches are already required by law to pay their workers overtime (which they evidently manage without problems). There’s no reason why paying overtime in the UK should be any more difficult.

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How do VFX companies currently compensate for overtime?

Most UK VFX companies only offer TOIL, and refuse to pay overtime. TOIL (time-off-in-lieu) means that a VFX worker is given an extra day of holiday whenever they have to work weekends, instead of being paid for their trouble. This might sound like a good thing, but in practice it has a lot of negative side-effects:

  • No UK VFX company offers TOIL for late evening work; only for weekends or bank holidays. The result is that VFX workers are pressured to work late during the week instead of working weekends to avoid costing the company money. Sometimes workers will even be told that this is for their own good (“why don’t we all work late during the week so that we can keep our weekends free?”). The result is a culture of long hours and burnout.
  • TOIL builds up and has a knock-on effect on other projects. If lots of VFX workers roll off a badly-managed project with large amounts of TOIL built up, it causes big scheduling problems for the next project. It means that the next project’s schedule suddenly needs to allow for large numbers of their crew taking some well-deserved time-off, and this can be extremely difficult. Even a well-run show can suddenly find itself pushed into a situation where overtime has become necessary because a previous show has managed its crew so poorly.
  • Workers are made to feel guilty if they try to take their TOIL at a time that doesn’t suit the company.
  • TOIL has no “punishing effect” on those asking for it. When working on set, a director and their producer can’t afford to ask their crew to regularly work late because the second they do, paid overtime agreements kick in and their crews’ hourly rates suddenly jump to 1.5x or 2x what they would normally be. TOIL simply doesn’t have this effect, and the result is that overtime happens a lot more regularly in VFX than it does in the rest of the film industry.
  • Sometimes workers are rolled off of one project in “crunch-time” straight onto another project which is also in “crunch-time”. It’s not unheard of for VFX workers to go for 6-9 months before they finally enter a quieter period where they’re allowed to take their time off, and this is a significant cause of burnout.
  • TOIL legitimises overtime – it results in a mentality of “Well I suppose it’s fine if we ask our crew to work this weekend; they’ll get TOIL for it after all”. We strongly disagree with this – excessive overtime has a large effect on the lives of VFX workers, as well as their friends and families. VFX is a job, not a lifestyle. We feel very strongly that overtime should be treated as a significant failure of management and as a desperate act of last-resort, not as a crutch to be relied on for every single project.

A much better alternative to TOIL would be to not need so much overtime in the first place. As such, we feel that existing TOIL arrangements in UK VFX don’t go anywhere near far enough. Compare our TOIL agreements here in the UK to those in other countries such as Canada and Australia, where some companies have to offer TOIL and paid overtime for anything beyond a standard 40 hour week. We’d like to see the UK VFX industry significantly improve how it compensates for overtime, so that overtime becomes expensive enough that it can only be used rarely. A union is the only realistic chance we have of making this happen.

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Won't Hollywood stop sending work to the UK if it becomes more expensive?

No. Hollywood doesn’t send its VFX work to the UK because it’s cheap – as any of you who’ve tried to find accommodation in London will know, London has one of the highest costs-of-living in the world. Wages for VFX workers in India and China are virtually nothing compared to here in the UK. Yet despite this huge difference, Hollywood continues to come back to the UK year after year, even though other countries are vastly cheaper (even allowing for UK tax breaks). Much of the rest of the UK’s film industry is unionised, yet Hollywood continues to send work to studios like Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden (to the point that they’re having to expand to keep up with demand).

The reason Hollywood keeps coming back to the UK is simple: the film studios are quite prepared to pay for the UK’s world-class talent because the work is done well, is cost-effective, and is delivered on-time.

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Won't all the work go to Canada if we unionise?

No. This fear is based on an oversimplified understanding of the economics of the VFX industry. The worry here seems to be “The clients want their work done as cheaply as possible, so if London gets even slightly more expensive then the clients will immediately send their work somewhere else”. However, this worry quickly falls apart under scrutiny.

Canada is already cheaper than London by some way, thanks to the huge Canadian tax breaks. India and China are also cheaper because of low wages and poor working conditions. If the clients only cared about getting the work done as cheaply as possible as this question suggests, then all the work should have left London already! Obviously, this isn’t the case – the London VFX scene is booming right now, with a huge roster of big projects on the way for the next year and beyond.

Whilst the clients do care about cost, it’s clearly not the only thing they care about. The clients also care about getting shots finished to a high standard so that audiences decide to see the spectacle on the big-screen. The clients care about having experienced VFX workers that are capable of handling complicated work. The clients care about having shots reliably delivered on-time so that they don’t miss their theatrical window. Consider this quote from Jon Landau, producer on the coming Avatar sequels:

‘[James Cameron] is not going back [to New Zealand] because of the financial incentives,’ Landau says. ‘It’s part of it, but he is going because of the labor pool and the creative talent that is down there. And I think that says something.’

Thanks to the large number of facilities that are so close together, London has a huge pool of highly-experienced world-class VFX workers that can be relied upon to deliver even the biggest blockbusters. Canada simply doesn’t have the same capacity, and there aren’t any cheaper VFX facilities in the world that could replace the London VFX industry at the drop of a hat.

Our goal in unionising is not to make VFX in London more expensive. Our goal is to simply to make sure that workers are treated fairly in the UK VFX industry, and aren’t continually asked to bear the brunt of unrealistic requests and deadlines.


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Won't unionising turn London into a ghost-town for VFX work, like LA did?

No. VFX work left Los Angeles because of foreign tax breaks and subsidies that made it dramatically cheaper to do work abroad – unionising had nothing to do with it. Rhythm & Hues and Digital Domain weren’t union facilities, and no attempt at unionisation was being made when they went under.

Almost every other branch of the film industry is unionised except for VFX (many of them since the earliest days of film), yet Hollywood has still reported record profits for years, and continues to send vast amounts of work to facilities with unionised workforces (like Shepperton, Leavesden, Pinewood, etc). Most of our clients are already part of a union themselves!


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How will VFX companies deliver projects without overtime?

More than a century of studies have shown that long periods of excessive hours actually result in less work being done, not more. When people get tired because of long hours, they slow down and make more mistakes – which then need more time to be fixed. Many work at a slower pace when faced with extended hours (“I should go a little easier than normal so I don’t burn out since I have to work this weekend as well“). Repeated stretches of overtime also lead to the workforce feeling exploited and uninspired, and their work ethic suffers accordingly.

So when a VFX company regularly asks you to work late over an extended period, they’re actually making their productions run slower, not faster. If a company feels that a deadline isn’t going to be met, then there are other options available to them:

  1. Hire more people. If the work is behind schedule, it’s a sign they need more people than planned to meet the deadline. If that means charging the clients more, then so be it.
  2. Delay the deadline (or deliver some parts later than was previously agreed). If the deadline was unrealistic, then it’s not fair to expect the workers to pay the price.
  3. Miss the deadline. A shocking thought perhaps, but if the team has been so poorly managed that crunch-time is the only way to fix it, then perhaps that should have more visible consequences!

In some companies outside of VFX, mass-overtime is actually seen by management as a sign that something has gone seriously wrong, and post-mortems are held to identify the cause and to prevent it from happening again. Imagine if UK VFX companies started treating overtime the same way…

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Can't people just say 'no' if they don't want to work overtime?

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. It can be incredibly intimidating for a new starter or a junior to refuse a direct instruction from their superiors to stay late, for example – many of them wouldn’t dare, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to do so. Many of us have seen emotional blackmail or intimidation used to pressure individuals to stay late. Even if an individual does successfully refuse a request to work late, it simply means their work gets passed to someone else instead who is prepared to work late.

Overtime is a complicated issue, and can have many different causes (an ambitious supervisor, an unrealistic bid, an impossible deadline, poor scheduling, a difficult client, delays getting turnover, inexperienced crews – the list goes on). Given the number of potential causes, the “culture of crunch-time” will remain an issue in the VFX industry until the VFX companies themselves decide to tackle the issue, and put limits in place to prevent their workforce from being exploited.

Individually, we can’t make the VFX companies do this. Together, we can.

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What if I don't work much VFX overtime?

Then you’re very lucky! However, remember that this is issue is not just about you – it’s about your friends and colleagues too.

How many of them have you seen regularly working late without pay? How often do you see them queueing up for the company dinner in your office each evening, especially around a deadline? Do you feel comfortable about that? Try asking some of them about the comments from the MPC Variety article or the VFX overtime survey – how many of them are genuinely happy about working conditions in the VFX industry right now?

You don’t need to be working excessive VFX overtime yourself to agree with us that the industry needs to change.

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What if I like working overtime?

That’s fine, some people do – particularly those new to the industry. But ask yourself the following questions, and answer them honestly:

  • Will I still enjoy regularly working overtime ten years from now? Twenty years from now?
  • What if I’m asked to work overtime on a different project that doesn’t inspire me at all? Will I enjoy working overtime on that?
  • What about my friends and colleagues who already have kids or a family? Do they seem happy with how often they have to work late?
  • What if I meet a partner or have kids one day? What if I find a fun hobby or sport outside of VFX? Would I still feel happy working so much overtime?
  • What about my friends and family? Are they happy when they don’t see me for several months because yet *another* project needs overtime to meet its deadline?

If you enjoy your job enough that you want to work late, then that’s great – but you should be the one to make that decision, not the VFX company you work for. If they ask you to work overtime, then they should pay you for it.

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Why do the VFX companies refuse to pay for overtime?

The subject of overtime been raised many times in recent years, and we’ve heard several excuses. We’ve listed each of these excuses below, together with our response – we don’t believe that any of these excuses stands up to scrutiny.

'We can't afford to pay for overtime'
We’ve already rebutted that excuse here – the London VFX studios have to pay overtime in their Canadian branches by law, and they evidently manage this without problems. If the VFX companies were to seriously claim that overtime is so widespread that they couldn’t afford to pay for it, then it would simply illustrate how extreme the VFX overtime situation has become, and why things need to change.

Our goal is to make excessive overtime expensive enough that the VFX companies can’t continually rely on it, and instead have to fix their problems properly by improving the way that they manage their productions. We’re not campaigning for paid overtime because we want to get rich – we’re campaigning because we want to end excessive overtime altogether.

Our only realistic chance of making this happen is to form a union.

'We pay our workers extremely well, and it's understood that free overtime is expected as part of that'
This excuse will make many of you feel angry, and rightly so.

Firstly, the claim that all UK VFX workers are “extremely well” paid is debatable, and is a claim that junior departments like trackers or runners would disagree with. There’s also no evidence on wage comparison websites or in the leaked Sony wage data to support the claim that UK VFX workers are better paid than others internationally. Even if VFX workers were being better paid in the UK as is alleged, going from a 40-hour week to a 60-hour week without any extra pay is the equivalent of a 33% pay cut, which is more than enough to eliminate any pay advantage that the UK VFX companies might claim their workers have.

However, let’s move on, because it’s the second half of this excuse where its true weakness lies – the idea that free overtime is “expected as part of it”. This excuse boils down to “as long as we pay you a fixed salary, it doesn’t matter if we treat you poorly”. This is clearly ridiculous, and more than a little offensive. Imagine if a worker was being bullied whilst at a VFX company, and this same excuse was used by the VFX companies in that context – “We pay our workers extremely well, and it’s understood that putting up with bullying is expected as part of that”. It’s a bad excuse for bullying, and it’s a bad excuse for unpaid overtime too.

For a company to expect its workforce to regularly give up their evenings and weekends for free because of poor management is simply wrong. How well those workers are paid (or otherwise) has nothing to do with it.

'Keeping track of everybody's hours would be too much of a burden for us'
This is clearly nonsense. Keeping track of employee hours is not exactly a new problem – almost every company on the planet has to do this in one way or another, and they all manage just fine. The suggestion that the UK’s VFX companies have the R&D capability to solve the colossal challenges of world-class VFX but yet somehow can’t create a simple time-logging mobile-app or intranet page/desktop widget is, frankly, laughable.
'If everyone at our company had to log their hours, the culture at our company would start to feel too corporate'
If the VFX companies truly wanted to keep their workplace from feeling “too corporate”, then they would start by clamping down on excessive overtime. After all, nothing says “corporate atmosphere” more than a large multinational VFX company that regularly requires its workers to work long hours for free, and which shows no regard for the effect this has on their well-being or the well-being of their friends and families.
'None of the other VFX companies pay overtime - if we did, it would put us at a disadvantage and we'd lose business'
Firstly, a correction – other VFX studios around the world do pay for overtime. Weta has paid its workers overtime for years (and is clearly still getting plenty of work despite this apparent “disadvantage”). Most of the major UK VFX companies have offices in Canada, and those Canadian offices are required by Canadian law to pay overtime – they clearly manage this without problems. Many of the big studios in the US pay overtime as well. So the basic premise of this excuse is already wrong – it’s only in the UK where we find this strange idea that VFX workers shouldn’t be paid for overtime.

Secondly, the major London VFX companies meet together several times a year through the UK Screen Association to discuss common VFX industry issues. The decision not to pay overtime in the UK VFX industry was made by common agreement between the major UK VFX companies at one of these industry-wide meetings. This is worth repeating – the reason UK VFX workers don’t get paid overtime is because of a “gentleman’s agreement”, not because of tight competition between the VFX companies.

So this excuse fails on multiple levels. We think that the evidence clearly shows that a union and paid overtime would both make the UK VFX industry stronger, not weaker.

'Yes, our people do sometimes have to work late, but they make up for it by occasionally going home an hour early outside of crunch-time'
The two things don’t even come close to cancelling out.

Numbers on this are hard to come by, and for obvious reasons. However, we’re aware of at least one individual that has kept careful notes on the amount of unpaid overtime that they worked on one particularly gruelling project. The total came to over 120 hours. This is a huge number; it’s the equivalent of three weeks working a standard eight-hour day – all unpaid. To balance that out as this excuse suggests would mean going home two hours early every single working day for 12 weeks, or one hour early every single working day for 24 weeks (which is half the working year). As anyone who’s worked in VFX knows, this simply never happens.

We’re aware of cases of leads who’ve been formally disciplined for letting members of their team go home early during crunch-time. We’re also aware of cases where individuals have been threated or emotionally blackmailed into staying when they tried to leave on time during crunch-time.

To suggest that workers can balance out the overtime problem in the VFX industry by “occasionally going home an hour early” suggests that the VFX company has no idea of the true scale of overtime, and why it urgently needs to be fixed.

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What happens if I become a member, and then move to a different company or country?

If you remain in the UK, then all of your benefits and protections as a BECTU member automatically follow you as you move from one company to another.

Obviously your working hours/pay/etc may vary as you move from company to company, depending on whether your old/new company have recognised BECTU or not and what common agreement each company has reached with its members. However, our goal is to get recognition for any department that wants it at every major VFX vendor in the UK. This would mean that even when you moved between companies, you could always expect to be treated fairly wherever you go. If you remain in the UK, it’s still in your interest to remain a BECTU member.

For those who move abroad, BECTU has ties with IATSE (an equivalent organisation in the states). If you decide to move to the US or Canada to work, then BECTU can help you to transfer your membership over to IATSE for the duration of your stay over there. Simply get in touch with BECTU and let them know, and they’ll guide you through the process.

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Should I still join if I'm not sure how long I'll be employed at my current company?

Yes – even if you’re laid off or your contract finishes partway through a recognition bid, your support will still have helped. Checks are made at several points throughout a recognition bid to make sure that there is still enough support amongst the workers. If you’re a member and you were only employed at that company for the first half of the recognition bid, then your support will still have counted whilst you were still employed there. If the bid is successful and you return to work at that same company again, we hope that you’ll find working conditions at that company have significantly improved.

The total number of members in a department isn’t what matters in a recognition bid – what matters is the percentage. The department can grow or shrink, but as long as the percentage of members in the department remains high enough, then the recognition bid can still continue.

So if you’re not sure how long you’re going to be at your current company, it makes no difference – it’s still definitely in your interest to sign up. As long as you agree with us that the VFX industry needs to improve how it treats its people, then that’s all that matters.

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Do supervisors / producers qualify for union membership?

Absolutely! Anyone in the UK VFX industry is welcome to join us, regardless of nationality, company or job. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a runner, a supervisor, a producer, an artist or a coder – if you agree with us, then we’d love to have you with us. As long as you work in the UK VFX industry and you want to see an improvement in how the industry treats its people, then that’s all that matters!

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If we get paid overtime, will hours be monitored more closely? Arrival, departure, lunch, tea breaks etc...

It’s difficult to say at this stage. Right now, we don’t have any way of predicting what concessions the VFX companies might ask for in return for paid overtime during negotiations. However, we can try to imagine for ourselves what a fair overtime deal might look like:

  • It wouldn’t be fair if a VFX company refused to pay someone for three hours overtime, simply because that individual was five minutes late back from lunch.
  • It wouldn’t be fair if the overtime rate was so cheap that the company could continue asking its people for large amounts of overtime on project after project.
  • Equally, it wouldn’t be fair if a VFX company was forced to pay one of their workers overtime because that worker spent all day on Facebook instead of getting their work done.

There are clearly a lot of details that would have to be carefully worked out carefully in negotiations between BECTU and the VFX companies if we want to get a fair and balanced deal that protects both sides. BECTU members would get a chance to vote on any proposed overtime deal before it came into force.

So would paid overtime mean that our hours would be monitored more closely? It’s pretty likely, yes – it would be hard for it to be a fair overtime agreement if decent hour-monitoring wasn’t part of the agreement. A fair overtime agreement has to protect the companies from bad employees, as well as protecting employees from bad companies. However, the details are the key to any overtime agreement we may reach, and those would be drawn up carefully in negotiations between BECTU and the VFX companies. If BECTU members were unhappy with a proposed overtime agreement, then they could choose to reject it and ask BECTU to negotiate for different terms.

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What about pay - would unionisation mean collective bargaining of wages too?

That’s up to the members to decide. The relationship between the members, the union and the company normally goes something like this:

  1. The members at one company or department choose someone amongst them to be a representative, or “rep” (typically by vote).
  2. The rep occasionally meets with the members they’re representing, and finds out if there are any issues the members are unhappy about. If one particular issue is raised by enough members (like unequal pay for example), then the rep will bring this issue to the union’s attention and will ask them to start negotiations with the company to sort it out.
  3. The union meets with the company, and says “Our members are unhappy about unequal pay, and want it to be fixed”. The union negotiates with the company (this is the part that a union is very good at), and after some time a proposed agreement is normally reached.
  4. The union takes this proposed agreement to the members, and the members vote on whether to accept it or not. If the members accept it, then the agreement comes into force. If the agreement is rejected, then the members can perhaps ask the union to try asking for different terms. If the members are particularly unhappy with a proposed agreement (or if no agreement could be reached), then they might choose to threaten industrial action instead.

In other unionised industries, there are fixed rates or minimum rates for particular roles (many of them can be found on the BECTU website). Whether we chose to go that way or not in VFX would be up to the BECTU VFX membership as a whole.

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Does joining a union mean I'll have to strike lots (like London Underground)?

No. Striking is an extreme measure of last-resort – it’s the “nuclear red button” of negotiation. It causes massive inconvenience to everyone – employees lose pay, deadlines get missed, non-union members have to work harder to pick up everyone else’s work, employers become very negative towards the union… the list goes on. A strike is only used in situations where a company has repeatedly refused to negotiate properly, and has to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to the negotiating table. A strike also can’t go ahead at a given company unless over 50% of the members at that company are in favour of it.

In the case of the VFX industry, we hope it wouldn’t ever come down to anything as serious as a strike. We hope that the VFX companies will negotiate with us sensibly, especially when they see that paying for overtime actually makes good business sense. Even if the VFX companies refused to negotiate meaningfully with us after achieving recognition, there are less drastic ways of forcing them to come to the negotiating table (work-to-rule, mass-48-hour-working-week-opt-ins, and so on).

Given the choice, we would much rather negotiate with the VFX companies sensibly and in good faith. We hope that they feel the same way.

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What chance does BECTU have of doing this? Isn't it just a toothless organisation?

Not even slightly. BECTU has already fought for the rights of workers at Cinesite. BECTU has fought for workers at Method London following the announcement of its closure. In both of these cases, BECTU has helped VFX workers come off with much better settlements than they would otherwise have received. BECTU has also represented workers at Double Negative following the announcement of lay-offs, and verified that its members were being treated fairly. Looking beyond the VFX industry, BECTU has recently improved pay for workers at Ritzy Cinemas, and has a number of other campaigns underway at any given time.

In our experience, those who say they’re not joining BECTU because they feel it’s “toothless” are those who know the least about BECTU and all the work that it’s been doing for workers in the VFX industry. Those who use this argument are often using it as a cover for something else, such as apathy or laziness. To those people, we would simply say this: “How bad would things have to get in the VFX industry before you decided to do something? And if you don’t think BECTU is the solution, then do you have a better plan?”

BECTU’s track-record is proven, and the recently-announced recognition bid at MPC is proof of that. For the first time, we have a realistic chance of improving working conditions in the UK VFX industry. The only question now is whether enough of us will take it.

EDIT: this paragraph has been changed to avoid an accidental implication that Double Negative was acting incorrectly – it was not, and behaved fairly in all cases

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I like the idea, but I don't want to make a fuss - do I really have to join?

Firstly, remember that no one’s asking you to stick your neck out personally, as BECTU’s membership is completely confidential. Talks with the VFX companies are handled by experienced BECTU negotiators – not by individual VFX artists.

Secondly, there’s no middle ground here – either you join us or you don’t. Unfortunately, sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing is effectively the same as saying that you’re happy with things as they are.

Individuals have been trying to get the VFX studios to fix excessive overtime for years now. The VFX studios have had many opportunities to tackle the problem, but their efforts have been superficial at best, and non-existent at worst. At the end of the day, every VFX company is a business and is trying to make money – and overtime is “free money” in the form of work that they don’t have to pay for. It’s unrealistic to expect the VFX companies to change their behaviour unless something gives them a decent financial reason to do so. This is our one chance to do exactly that – but only if we choose to.

To get union recognition, all we need to do is to show the CAC that a certain percentage of a company or a department supports us and wants to see overtime reduced. If we get the number of members we need, we can fix things in that company or department. If we don’t, we can’t.

If you disagree with us for some reason, then we can respect that (although we’d love to know why – please consider leaving a comment on this site or getting in touch!). But if you do support us, even privately, then please sign up. It takes just a few minutes, and costs very little compared for the potential reward of getting normal working hours in the VFX industry. If our bid for recognition doesn’t work then you can always cancel your membership. But remember – doing nothing and waiting for others to sort it out is the same as saying you’re happy with things as they are. This is our best and only shot as this.
What are your evenings and weekends worth to you?

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Won't the VFX companies start watching who goes to union meetings?

No. UK law is crystal clear on this:

Your employer isn’t allowed to dismiss you or choose you for redundancy because you:

  • are or want to be a union member
  • aren’t or don’t want to be a union member
  • took part or wanted to take part in union activities

Your employer mustn’t treat you unfavourably (for example refusing you promotion or training opportunities) if you:

  • join a union
  • take part in its meetings
  • leave a union

If your employer tried to discriminate against you for being a BECTU member, BECTU would take them to an employment tribunal and fight them on your behalf. Some of our members have been very candid and open to the companies they work for about their BECTU membership, and none of them have yet been punished in any way so far.

Even if one of the VFX companies did foolishly decide to try something like this, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between people who are full BECTU members and those who simply came along to chat with friends. The VFX industry already has trouble finding enough people to handle all of the work happening in London – they simply can’t afford to start firing large numbers of people based on vague suspicions.

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What arguments has MPC given against unionisation so far?

'The pot is not bottomless - if VFX workers want paid overtime/sick pay/job security/etc, then something's got to give'
Naturally – this is not an unreasonable position for a company to take. BECTU is being guided by its members, and we recognise that the VFX industry is a financially challenging environment, and that the UK VFX companies don’t have endless resources. If we unionise, then of course it doesn’t mean that every single VFX worker’s wishes will somehow instantly be granted. Equally though, just because the VFX companies have limited money, it doesn’t mean that it’s somehow completely impossible for them to improve how they treat their workers. Nor does it mean that a recognised union would somehow instantly put the VFX companies out of business.

Let’s be completely clear: we’re not unionising because we’re trying to squeeze more money out of the VFX companies. We’re not unionising because we want to pick a fight. We’re not unionising because of some unrealistic ideology either. We’re unionising because of very serious and very practical concerns about how people are being treated. We feel that the way that the VFX industry is treating its people is not right, is not sustainable, and needs to change if the UK VFX industry is to keep the talent it needs to survive. Having coordinators block exits to prevent workers from leaving on time is not a reasonable way for MPC to treat its workers – ever.

If the union’s members started pushing for something unreasonable (like making all their salaries 100x larger), then the union can look at the company’s books and will tell its members that this is completely unrealistic, before suggesting a more reasonable goal. If a VFX company ends up shrinking or going out of business because of a union, then that hurts the union too, because it loses members and membership fees. No one wants to see unionisation hurt the VFX industry, especially not BECTU.

A union also doesn’t arbitrarily decide on its own how much workers get paid – the union negotiates with the company and they come to a common agreement. If a VFX company could convincingly show that it couldn’t afford to pay for things like overtime, then BECTU would listen and would respect that. However, in the last 3 years of negotiations with BECTU, none of the VFX companies have yet made such a case. We think that a well-rested and fairly treated workforce would be significantly more efficient than a workforce that’s tired, overworked and demoralised – and this is something that should be taken into account before blindly suggesting that ideas such as paid-overtime simply aren’t affordable.

Even if a VFX company couldn’t afford to pay for everything its members were asking for, there are still other ways of tackling the issues that we’ve been raising. It might involve making changes to bidding and how time is estimated, for example. It might involve developing a stricter company policy on worker exploitation, and punishing productions or supervisors that breach these rules. It might involve changing development priorities, so that the company focuses on improvements to remove inefficient workflows. It might involve negotiating different terms with the Hollywood studios, so that the financial health of the VFX industry can improve. A union can help with all of these these things, as it has helped in other parts of the film industry.

Finally, we would caution any company that makes this excuse that VFX workers are a smart bunch, and are quite capable of doing research using publicly available resources to see through bad excuses. Anyone can search the UK Companies House website to see that MPC made £11.6 million in profit in 2014, for example (PDF, page 8). Anyone can find articles proclaiming that 2015 was a record financial year for the film industry as a whole, with total box office profits in excess of $11 billion worldwide. If the UK VFX companies truly cannot afford to treat their people reasonably despite the fact that they’re part of the most profitable movies in the film industry, then maybe it’s time for them to ask themselves why and to take steps to improve the situation.

'If one department unionises, then we'll have to cut everyone else's pay by 20% to pay for it'
It’s hard to take this excuse as anything other than blackmail, and an attempt to turn VFX workers against each other.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, when a union is recognised it doesn’t somehow mean that every worker suddenly becomes more expensive, or that everyone instantly gets paid overtime. When a union is first recognised, nothing changes at all beyond the fact that the company is now required to talk to the union, and must give access to the information they need to be able to do their job (profit margins, pay scales, employee lists, etc). If MPC chose to cut everyone else’s pay as a bizarre form of “collective punishment”, then there would be absolutely no reason for them to do this other than greed – they would be using the union as a convenient excuse to increase profits by reducing wages. If this came to pass and these other departments felt unhappy at being punished like this, then BECTU would welcome them with open arms, and would be happy to start fighting for their rights too.

Remember, unionisation is a basic legal right that almost everyone in the UK has – why should MPC punish its workers simply for exercising their rights? What if instead of putting all this time and effort into fighting unionisation, MPC put the same time and effort into collaborating with the union to end worker exploitation and excessive overtime instead?

'If a union is recognised, then it's no longer possible for us to reward good workers with pay increases'
Again, not true. Just because a union has been recognised, it doesn’t mean that pay agreements with the workers suddenly magically change. The relationship between the workers, a recognised union and a company normally works like this:

  1. The members at a company are unhappy. They speak to their elected union rep, and it becomes clear that a majority of them want to see some kind of change in their working conditions (like paid overtime for example).
  2. The union rep brings this issue to the union’s attention, and asks the union to begin negotiations with the company about it.
  3. The union negotiates with management at the company on behalf of its members, and tries to come up with a proposed agreement that gives the workers what they are asking for. If this isn’t possible, then the union will try to find an alternate proposed agreement that at least goes part-way.
  4. If a proposed agreement was found, then the union presents this proposed agreement to their members, and the members vote on it. If enough members are in favour of it, then the agreement comes into force. If the members reject it or if no proposed agreement was reached, then the members decide what to do next – whether to ask BECTU to go for a different deal, or whether to give up on their demands, or whether to consider industrial action of some sort to put pressure the company (such as refusing to work excessive overtime).

So just because a department chose to unionise through BECTU, it doesn’t mean that pay banding would automatically have to come into effect. It would only come in if the members wanted it, an agreement was reached, and a majority of those members voted for it. If a department feels that they are already fairly rewarded for good work and that the system isn’t being abused, then they’d have no reason to ask for and vote in favour of a different pay structure that gets rid of it.

Even if workers did choose to vote for pay banding or rate-cards at some point in the future, pay banding is more commonly implemented as a minimum anyway, i.e. “as a lead compositor, you should be paid at least £XXX per hour”. There’s no reason that a rate-card or pay-banding system should stop a company from paying talented individuals more than the minimum rate. If you don’t believe us, then have a look at a genuine BECTU rate card (PDF) for the camera branch, and see for yourself.

Finally, remember that any future decision we make over pay-banding/rate cards is completely separate from the question of whether we should unionise or not. The question is not “What will the results be for me financially?”, but rather “Are we being treated fairly by our employers right now, and if not, would we like a union to work on our behalf to try to improve the situation?”

'For things to get fairer for everyone, seniors, leads and supes will have to accept a pay cut.'
Again, not true – this is an attempt to turn different workers against each other. Our response to this is exactly the same as the response that we gave for “pay-banding” and “the pit is not bottomless”:

  • Members get to vote on any proposed agreement that changes how pay or other key parts of our working conditions are run. If enough members are unhappy with a proposed agreement, then it will be rejected and it simply won’t come into force. If a new agreement was voted in by members, then it would be because a majority were unhappy with the old agreement, and a new agreement was therefore necessary anyway. No agreement will come into force without the members’ approval.
  • It’s not in a union’s interest to push a company out of business or to make it less efficient than competitors – workers would lose jobs, and the union will lose members. Remember that unions make their workforces more efficient, not less`.

It’s impossible to say with any certainty what exact terms will come out of negotiations between BECTU and a VFX company if a recognition bid is successful. The question that workers at MPC should be asking themselves right now is not “What will the results be for me financially?”, but rather “Are we being treated fairly by our employers right now, and if not, would we like a union to work on our behalf to try to improve the situation?”

'A union could mean that just 40% of the workers can decide the fate of everyone else'
This is either a misunderstanding of how union recognition works, or is a deliberate attempt to put workers off of unionisation by spreading misinformation about it. Don’t just take our word for it, feel free to check up on any of these facts yourself (this page by the UK government confirms it, as does the UK government’s full PDF guide to recognition). Let’s take a simplified look at how membership numbers affect a recognition bid.

Once a recognition bid has started, checks are made at several points throughout the process to make sure that the union still has enough support for the bid to continue. If at any point the numbers aren’t high enough, then the bid ends immediately and recognition is refused. The required membership level gets higher with each check as the bid develops:

  1. For a bid to start, the union only needs 10% of the chosen department to be members.
    Note: 10% is only a minimum. A recognition bid requires a union to commit significant time and resources, and are therefore not started lightly. It would be highly foolish for a union to start a bid with a membership level as low as 10%, and in practice most unions – including BECTU – will insist on a much higher and fairer membership level before they’ll even consider launching a recognition bid.
  2. Halfway through the recognition process, in order for the bid to proceed to the CAC, the union needs to show that a majority of workers in the chosen department “would be likely to favour union recognition”. For it to be able to do this, the union will either need at least 40% of the department to be members, or it’ll need some other demonstration of support (like a petition signed by the majority of the department for example).
  3. In the final stages of a bid, one last membership check is made. If the union’s membership includes over 50% of the chosen department, then recognition is granted immediately. Otherwise, if the union has 40%-50% of the chosen department, then a ballot is held – and recognition is only granted if over 50% of those who vote in the ballot are in favour of recognition. The vote is ruled to be invalid if less than 40% of the department as a whole took part. This is a higher standard than UK elections, where in 2015 the conservatives won a majority with 37% of the vote , and where no required minimum turnout rule exists at all (in 1998 turnout in one local election was just 28.8%).

So as you can see, this worry has no basis. Recognition bids are hard – deliberately so. It would be very, very difficult for a bid to be successful if only 40% of the department supported it. The only way this could happen is if either (1) the company chose to immediately grant voluntary recognition in step 1 without checking via ACAS that the union had enough support, or (2) if most of those in the department against recognition for some reason decided not to vote.

If a VFX company is genuinely concerned about “40% of the workers deciding the fate of everyone else”, then we would invite them to talk to BECTU. BECTU would be happy to correct any misconceptions they might have about recognition. BECTU can also give the company a rough anonymised idea of membership level in initial talks via a third party such ACAS to assure them that the membership level is high enough. From the conversations we’ve had with VFX workers and the feedback we’ve had so far, we can safely predict that it is a lot more than “just 40%” of our departments that want to see a positive change in the VFX industry!…

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