At just 24, Jonathan Ahee was already president of NABET 700-M Unifor, a Toronto union of more than 1,000 film industry and new media technicians. He rose from the ranks of special effects – flipping cars, lighting fires and handling guns. Now he bids on major film and TV productions, manages a multimillion-dollar budget and helps with members’ concerns.
Unifor Local 2000 chatted with Ahee to get a sense of what a union could do for Vancouver workers in animation, visual effects and gaming.
NABET president Jonathan Ahee, at right, with Toronto Mayor John Tory.
Could you explain a little bit about how your local works, because you use the hiring-hall model. How is that different from a straight-up, unionizing-the-workplace model?
We don’t have any one workplace that we’ve unionized, so we have a collection of members here on a list that is not seniority-based, and they’re broken down by department and obviously categories within that department, like a key grip, or best boy grip or best girl grip. … We negotiate with each individual production as it shows up in the city. It could be a feature film, a series, a webisode, whatever the case may be, we negotiate – based on its budget level – a contract based off our master contract, and then once that’s signed, that production may only utilize the members that are on our list for the first available positions.
So the workers then pay a membership fee, right?
They pay a flat fee quarterly.
What are some other models you’ve seen in the film industry, besides the hiring hall?
With TVOntario, our contract is ultimately with the employer, and it’s for the entire organization, and we don’t do it on a production-by-production basis. We do it as a call to the organization. So if they need a grip, they hire that grip, and that grip can work on any number of productions they have on a given day. But we work out different terms and conditions for their employment.
We’ve been getting a lot of calls and people coming forward with workplace issues in VFX, gaming and animation – all describing similar problems. What would be a good model if they wanted to unionize?
If the individuals that are coming forward are working for an entity on a number of projects, it might be better to organize the entity. A visual effects company that has a number of projects, … then perhaps the model that works is signing a contract with the entity. If you work on a project-by-project basis, perhaps it’s better to sign a contract with that entity but based on each project.
What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions about joining a union for workers?
They’re concerned first and foremost it will disrupt their career path by somehow scaring the employer away or somehow creating a negative view in the eyes of the employer of them. And the second concern is: Will this prevent me from furthering my career? Are there union rules that are in place that will be a hindrance to me as an individual as I expand my career?
How do you address those concerns?
We’ve worked hard to demonstrate to the employer that we are a partner in production and we can do a lot of good for them, and a majority of our employers think that is the case. For the member, we don’t operate as a hindrance to them. In fact, we don’t have seniority, for example. So you can get work based on what you know and who you know, which are two of the critical tenets that would happen in the non-union world.
What about your rates in the contracts you negotiate? Aren’t those set though?
Our rates are minimum rates in the (master) agreement, so nothing prevents people from negotiating a higher rate or higher terms and conditions, and we enforce those terms and conditions. Those two concerns from the individual are the primary ones.
What about misconceptions the boss may have about unions?
For the employer, it’s going to be increased costs. Is it going to tank my business, and, because we’re in a creative industry, am I going to lose creative control over my product? And that is key for our agreement. We try to make sure our agreement only focuses on administrative issues and not creative ones. We don’t want the agreement to impact creative decisions. That’s why we make sure the agreement is flexible on the creative side but fair and firm on the administrative side.
I think a lot of companies are terrified of the idea that their employees could unionize. Are there any other benefits that the employer gets out of this?
Totally. If you look at the film industry, it has heavy union density. The organizations have capital that obviously comes in off of union dues. We’re a huge force, lobbying the government for legislation or terms and conditions or grants or tax credits that are critical to the survival of our industry. That is a huge chunk of the lobby effort that unions have taken on, more so than the employers.
Don’t you go to California to bid on projects as well?
The unions regularly do trade missions to Los Angeles, for example, to try to generate business. That business, when it comes here, tries to connect with a service producer, so a Canadian producer, people we would have contracts with. We actually generate business for our employers, not just for our members. That is a huge, huge misconception that a union will somehow be disruptive in nature. It’s quite the opposite.
That’s really cool. Now what about VFX, gaming and animation? They’ve been complaining about a lot of unpaid overtime. They’re basically paid 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but when crunch time hits, they’re working evenings and weekends. If you negotiate a collective agreement that guarantees set hours, that means the employer is going to lose a lot of free labour. Employers will say they can’t afford to pay people.
Employers will always say that. Even before they sign the collective agreement, they complain, “Oh, it’s not manageable. No, I can’t sign on that, it’s too expensive.”
We ask staff to open the budget; we look at costs associated with that. We are reasonably sure it’s fair. And afterwards, when the show is finished, whether it’s a series or feature show, we do an audit on every show. We meet with the employer, to talk to the production managers, we ask them how it went. Because I truly do want the agreement to work for them because if they’re not signing it, there’s no point to it. Very rarely do they continue with those same complaints.
What would you say to people in the entertainment industry, or people on the VFX, gaming and animation side, who are not in a union?
I would say join a union, form a union, unionize. If you look at arguments against unionizing – employer arguments about how we shouldn’t come together – what you need to do is ignore those arguments and look at what your employer does. All of the employers I know in the entertainment industry, and pretty much every employer out there, they come together. They form trade associations, they form industry organizations, they lobby as a group. They realize that collective action works to their benefit, and they come together.
Remove the term “unionizing” and look at yourself as an individual technician. Sure you might be able to do well on your own, but if you come together, collectively, you will do better.
We call it unionizing, but the employer – our film producers, for example – they have producers’ associations. All of those associations, they have an association; they have the CMPA (Canadian Media Producers’ Association). They come together for collective action, and it works. So why wouldn’t that argument extend to employees?