For the past week, it seems like everyone in VFX has been glued to the unfolding Digital Domain bankruptcy proceedings. As details emerge of families left in the lurch, the inevitable lawsuits that are just now beginning to accumulate, and uncertainty at the remaining facilities, many have wondered, what could a union have done in this situation?
If a union shop were to close and release their staff, the company would be sent a letter demanding that the two parties engage in “effects bargaining,” and the company has a legal obligation to meet with representatives of the union. During the effects bargaining session, the two sides try to resolve issues such as full and final payment of wages earned, severance pay, issues related to continuing health care, sick pay and vacation days pay-out, and priority for employment if the company restructures and reopens. There is no one-size-fits-all severance pay provision; some contracts contain such language, some do not.
For example, 2 years ago when a national theater chain moved to digital projection, they no longer had need of staff projectionists. The IATSE met with the company and negotiated full payment of accrued vacation and holidays, a significant severance package (based on years of service), and a “first look” at new jobs if they became available. It should be noted that in exchange for an accepted severance package, the employee usually agrees to waive any claims or future legal actions against the company.
When a project or company collapses due to financial woes, it can be difficult to negotiate anything, let alone a severance package. However, the union can help employees collect any debt owed in the case of bankruptcy. When wages are not paid, filing a claim helps to ensure that the unpaid workers’ wages are moved up the priority list in bankruptcy court. In these situations, the union can help file grievances and unfair labor practice charges on the members’ behalf.
When companies fold, or mass layoffs occur, Federal and State laws oftentimes require 60 days notice to employees. Union members have advocates who can help in the process of filing claims under the WARN Act and provide representation if needed.
Also, when workers lose their jobs, if their healthcare is tied to the company, it’s an extra burden to lose that coverage, or to pay exorbitant amounts for COBRA. Under an IATSE contract, healthcare is generally tied to the member, not the company, and thus the benefits travel with the employee from union job to union job. Under some benefit plans, like the MPIPHP, depending on how many union work hours an employee has accrued, union members could potentially carry their healthcare for almost a year while looking for union employment.
For those who work on a project where they do not receive full payment for services rendered, the union leads the charge in making sure their members are paid. The IATSE oversees the filing of grievances on behalf of members on a regular basis. Just recently, an IA crew who were not paid for weeks of work on a financially troubled feature received a hefty check containing all wages owed. This was accomplished because of grievances filed by the IATSE and constant pressure on the company.
The bottom line is that the IATSE provides representation and advocacy during difficult transitions, a throughline in healthcare coverage and pension benefits for its members. For over 100 years, we’ve fought for entertainment workers’ rights.