Why VFX workers are unionising in Hollywood — and why it’s important

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Why VFX workers are unionising in HollywoodGetty Images

Hollywood is in all-out revolt, with visual effects workers now unionising for the first time ever.

This month, VFX artists from Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures have decided to unionise under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), seeking better working conditions.

The importance of this decision cannot be understated, both because of its unprecedented nature and the crucial role this branch plays in today's Hollywood. After all, these are the artists responsible for designing our wildest dreams on screen, and they deserve to keep doing so unexploited and fairly paid.

While the writers and actors' strikes show no sign of exhaustion, VFX artists are simultaneously creating a historic movement that could shake the American industry to its core.

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How is the VFX workers' situation in Hollywood?

Last March, IATSE released a damning survey that showed how visual effects workers lack access to essential benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans.

It also found VFX crews are lacking breaks and rest periods, and they're not getting paid for working overtime, resulting in some workers failing to even make minimum wage.

This survey was aimed to organise VFX workers, one of the last areas of the production community that are still not unionised. Given the worsening of their working conditions while their craft is increasingly in demand within the industry, seeking protection has become a necessity.

Also, their ability to work from home only worsens their situation in a post-pandemic industry, as this usually leads to longer working hours.

"Most visual effects workers I know can barely survive five years in the industry," said VFX veteran Maggie Kraisamutr during the presentation of IATSE's survey (via Variety), which showed that two thirds of the workers surveyed see the current situation as "unsustainable."

The ground was laid, but it was the eruption of the current Hollywood strikes that set everything in motion.

On May 2, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike asking for better deals in the streaming era, which has dramatically cut the writers' incomes, as well as for placing boundaries around the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Two months later, the actors' union SAG-AFTRA joined them, also seeking a higher and fairer pay and protection against unauthorised use of their images through AI.

Now, it's VFX workers' turn to start their own revolution, joining a union for the first time.

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Getty Images

Why are VFX workers unionising now?

In early August, a supermajority of over 50 Marvel visual effects workers signed authorisation cards indicating they wished to be represented by IATSE. The vote count will take place next September 12.

"For almost half a century, workers in the visual effects industry have been denied the same protections and benefits their coworkers and crewmates have relied upon since the beginning of the Hollywood film industry," said Mark Patch, VFX organizer for IATSE, in a statement.

"This is a historic first step for VFX workers coming together with a collective voice demanding respect for the work we do."

Marvel VFX artists' move towards unionisation hardly comes as a surprise.

In summer 2022, a number of workers spoke up on social media about their experiences working for the superhero company, which apparently includes dealing with impossible demands while being severely underpaid.

"Working on #Marvel shows is what pushed me to leave the VFX industry," wrote Dhruv Govil, a visual effects artist who has worked on Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming, in a now-deleted tweet (via The Guardian).

"They're a horrible client, and I've seen way too many colleagues break down after being overworked, while Marvel tightens the purse strings. The issue is #Marvel is too big, and can demand whatever they want. It's a toxic relationship," Govil added.

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Marvel Studios

But Marvel visual effects' workers are not the only ones heading towards unionisation.

Two weeks later, VFX crews at Walt Disney Pictures followed their lead, as over 80% of their in-house workers officially expressed a desire to unionise.

"The determination of these VFX workers is not just commendable, it's groundbreaking," said Matthew D. Loeb, International President of IATSE.

"Their collective action against the status quo represents a seismic shift in this critical moment in our industry. The chorus of voices demanding change is unprecedented, and demonstrates our united movement is not about any one company, but about setting a precedent of dignity, respect, and fairness for all."

As Loeb pointed out, these historic changes don't happen "in a vacuum".

The joined fight of writers and actors, who are still striking outside of the studios and will continue to do so until their demands are met, have sparked something in the heart of the American industry.

VFX workers have taken some significant steps in their effort to unionise, but there is still much to do for this essential part of Hollywood.

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