Reading about the Lumiere VFX artists going unpaid yet again, I found myself reflecting on how my union and the IATSE has dealt with delinquent employers, yes the movie business has many stories of unpaid bills! It brought to mind an experience with one such delinquent employer when I was the local’s business agent in 2004.
An independent production, they are always independents, (the Studio/AMPTP productions pay their bills), had rolled into town during a quieter period of activity and began prepping a “cops and robbers” movie, with box office actors attached. Everything was going smoothly.
Or so it seemed, until one Thursday afternoon after shooting had commenced, we started hearing from the crew that they had not received their paycheques. The Master Collective Agreement stipulates workers’ are to be paid weekly on Thursday and the paycheques are to ready and available by 4.00pm. Phone calls were made and assurances came from the producers that money was on its way, it was being wired from Los Angeles.
Tick tock, tick tock…by the next morning still no money had arrived, no paycheques could be processed.
Payroll continued to default; a “Groundhog Day” scenario began unfolding as I and my fellow union business agents made the weekly trek to set on payday to assure the crew that we were working on getting their money. “It was up to you if you wanted to stay and work, but if you felt this was too tenuous it would be OK to leave the show too.” The majority of the crew stayed, having faith that the Unions had their backs. The more days the crew worked, the more footage was being filmed, the more there was as stake.
By the third week, still no monies had been wired, and with now four weeks of wages owing to the crew, the Unions shut down the show. Meanwhile, tense behind the scenes negotiations shifted to prioritizing legally securing the negative. Crucial paperwork was signed off in the middle of the night, and the Unions got a hold of the “cans”! The next day the producers were informed: “No money, no film!” Needless to say, they weren’t thrilled with this new turn of events. The company was on the hook to the financiers, having secured presales a product had to be delivered to the distributors.
In the Master Agreement there is a provision that requires non-signatory companies to deposit a performance bond to guarantee wages and monies owing, the sum was $150,000 dollars, one that would not fully meet the wage obligations to the IATSE 891 and 669 crew on this production. Union members had worked for an entire month without being paid. Car payments, rent /mortgage, grocery and daycare bills were accumulating. Members’ health and pension plans were behind on contributions. Not knowing how long it was going to take to get the monies owing to the crew, IATSE locals did not want to leave their members financially stranded and so contingency funds were accessed and deposited at the payroll company who could then cut the crew’s paycheques. We continued to work on getting what was in the end over $2 million combined in unpaid wages and benefits for the five unions’ respective member crew: IATSE 669 and 891, Teamsters 155, Directors Guild BC, and Union of BC Performers.
If this had been a nonunion production the crew would have been “paddling up a creek without a paddle”. Without a union, individuals would be on their own. It was clear to everyone, the company had had no intention of meeting its financial obligations until, suddenly, they found themselves without their “cans of film”. Now they had to deal with the combined strength of the Unions to get them back.
This story had a happy ending, we secured all the monies owing. The Unions got every cent owed to the crew, $2 million plus and we were able to assist the local vendors get their bills paid to the tune of $1.5 million.
We then took steps to provide even better financial security for our members for the future.
First up, IATSE Local 891 created a permanent contingency fund; no member would ever go again without being paid on a signatory production due to a payroll default.
And secondly, when the next round of contract negotiations came up language was added to the collective agreement requiring nonStudio/AMPTP companies to provide “appropriate security bonding arrangements.” A typical example would be an up front deposit at the payroll company of one week’s worth of estimated payroll. No money, no union crew. If a production couldn’t deposit up front what they needed to pay the crew well they can’t afford to make the movie.
Across Canada and the US, the IATSE has had similar experiences with delinquent employers. The IA with their vast communications network notifies all locals who to be on the look out for. The IA does not rest until all wages and benefits owed to the IA crews have been paid, and they are successful. Similar bonding provisions have also been introduced into IA agreements.
IATSE 891 membership has its benefits not the least being members get paid for the work they perform. It’s truly disheartening to hear over and over again stories of VFX artists who work on the same productions as IATSE not being paid properly, receiving no benefits, and in the most recent case with Lumiere, workers not getting paid at all.
Where is the happy ending for VFX Artists?
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