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Walt Disney Pictures VFX workers move towards unionisation

The visual effects (VFX) workers at Walt Disney Pictures have filed with the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election to unionise with the backing of the union body International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

This marks only the second time in history that VFX professionals have joined together to demand the same rights and protections as their unionised colleagues throughout the film industry, with the other being Marvel VFX workers’ similar filing just this month.

Walt Disney Pictures, an arm of Walt Disney Studios, has been at the forefront of the entertainment industry for a century. Established originally as Walt Disney Productions, it was renamed in 1983. The unionising VFX workers are responsible for creating the VFX across the studio’s catalogue, including modern classics such as the live-action adaptations of Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pirates of the Caribbean among others.

The unionising workers are demanding fair compensation for all hours worked, adequate health care, retirement benefits, and the same rights and protections afforded to their unionised coworkers who are already represented by IATSE. These demands echo the increasingly prevalent calls for improvements across the VFX industry, and are corroborated with the sentiment uncovered by IATSE’s 2022 VFX Worker Rate and Conditions Survey, which was published in March.

This move follows a supermajority (over 80 per cent) of the 18 in-house VFX crew members at Walt Disney Pictures signed authorisation cards signalling their desire to unionise. With today’s filing, a labour board election could commence as soon as two to three weeks. If a majority of these workers vote in favour of unionising in that election, the studio would be required to begin good-faith negotiations for a contract covering these workers as a group.

“Today, courageous visual effects workers at Walt Disney Pictures overcame the fear and silence that have kept our community from having a voice on the job for decades,” said IATSE VFX organiser Mark Patch. “With an overwhelming supermajority of these crews demanding an end to “the way VFX has always been,” this is a clear sign that our campaign is not about one studio or corporation. It’s about VFX workers across the industry using the tools at our disposal to uplift ourselves and forge a better path forward.” 

“The determination of these VFX workers is not just commendable, it’s groundbreaking,” said IATSE international president Matthew D. Loeb. “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.”

While positions like production designers/art directors, camera operators, sound, editors, hair and makeup artists, costumes/wardrobe, script supervisors, grips, lighting, props and paint, among others, have historically been represented by IATSE in motion picture and television, workers in VFX classifications historically have not. VFX job classifications have largely remained non-union since the field was pioneered during production of the first Star Wars films in the 1970s.

IATSE has reported unprecedented demand for unionisation across all sectors of the entertainment industry, and this groundbreaking move by Walt Disney Pictures’ VFX workers is part of a massive wave of organising throughout the business. Earlier this month, workers at Gladius Studios across animation, VFX and video game classifications voted unanimously to unionise with The Animation Guild (TAG), IATSE Local 839.

Also this month, Marvel Studios VFX Workers similarly filed for a union election. At the time of this release, the labour board’s unionisation election for Marvel’s VFX workers is underway, with the votes set to be counted on 12 September.