What exactly is the workforce at Image Comics thinking? A tiny cadre of long-term employees of the indie comics publisher announced today the formation of a union calling themselves ‘Comic Book Workers United’. Along with their announcement, they released a document outlining their plans. The document is signed by Ryan Brewer, Leanna Caunter, Marla Eizik, Drew Fitzgerald, Melissa Gifford, Chloe Ramos, Tricia Ramos, Jon Schlaffman and Erika Schnatz. These appear to be editorial staff, rather than writers, artists, or creators.
In the early stages of organizing, we looked to Image’s founders for inspiration. Their dreams of self-determination and more equitable treatment in the industry they loved and helped make successful are also our dreams.
— Comic Book Workers United (@cbwupdx) November 1, 2021
While this appears to be office staff, organizing a union of freelancers for collective bargaining may fall under anti-trust laws, which are intended to combat price fixing. As has already been reported elsewhere, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1946 explicitly excluded “any individual having the status of an independent contractor” from unionizing to the section that already excluded domestic and agricultural workers from being able to exercise that right. A Freelancers Union exists, but doesn’t engage in collective bargaining deliberations with employers, but does help with healthcare and other provisions that a freelancer may be unable to get themselves. Almost all the creator owned comics published at Image are done so by freelancers, not the people who are forming the union.
Most savvy creators set up their own LLCs, and if they started talk with each other about things like minimum prices for work, that might be considered collusion and could potentially open them up to federal prosecution. And it’s worth noting that much bigger names in the past, like Neal Adams, Barry Windsor Smith, Dick Giordano, Frank Miller, Steve Gerber, Steven Grant and others explored the possibility of unionizing back in the seventies and eighties but it never got any traction.
Image was founded in 1992 by Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino, and back then Image Comics marked a major shift in the comic book industry by focusing primarily on creator-owned work. In the years since then, it’s gone on to become the third-largest comic book publisher in the United States, behind Marvel and DC. Founder Jim Valentino at least seems pro union, according this Facebook post from over the summer, but rest assured he would never agree to be held to account by the list of demands this union has proposed.
The Comic Book Workers United publicly issued the following goals, demands, and requests, and are asking for people to sign a statement of support, whether as an individual, firm or group.
- To foster a more competitive industry as a whole, through salary and workload transparency for all existing and proposed job titles. Employees industry-wide should know what they and their peers are working for and what they can expect from future employment.
Improve staff morale through annual staff and management reviews to assess performance, workload, and whether there is a clear need to expand a department, craft a new role, or increase compensation for employees who have taken on a larger quantity or more complex suite of tasks.
- The creation of a more transparent company culture through monthly all-hands meetings, so all staff can better understand both the current and future priorities, responsibilities, and workloads of other departments.
- Increase knowledge retention through the implementation of detailed record keeping and procedure documentation for all tasks deemed essential to any given role. These documents are to include detailed and explicit descriptions and instructions for all expected job duties.
- Improve career mobility for all staff through stricter adherence to the company’s stated intent to offer open positions up to qualified existing employees prior to opening them up to the public.
- The continuation of remote work for any employee who requests it and the creation of a detailed policy outlining how the company provides reasonable accommodations and supplies for remote employees. The pandemic has removed the necessity for the company to pay for a central office space, utilities, etc. With employees in some cases now shouldering one hundred percent of costs that should be shared by the employer, costs such as internet, power, furnishings and other office supplies, computer hardware and related maintenance costs to work from their own personal devices, the company must outline an equitable arrangement for sharing a reasonable percentage of those costs.
- Better overall product through the immediate addition of staff, particularly in Production and Marketing departments. Our creators, retailers, and readers can expect white glove attention for all the books we publish; books which will go to press with fewer errors, fewer delays, and a more robust marketing presence due to a more strategic approach to staffing, in reasonable proportion to the actual quantity of output we generate.
- A long term, actionable plan to address the overall lack of diversity in both general staff and management. The authors, artists, and readers who bring comics to life have never been homogenous and the stories we publish can only be improved by staffing our organization in a way that more accurately reflects the demographics of our creators, our readership, and the nation as a whole.
Renewed commitment to company values through the addition of a collective voting option to immediately cancel publication of any title whose creator(s) have been found to have engaged in abuse, sexual assault, racism and xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, ableism, etc. until such time as said creators have engaged in meaningful reparations toward affected person(s).
There seems to be a lot of discussion about value propositions, pay scales, reparations, and diversity, but it’s difficult to see how any of this is sustainable in such an already weakened industry struggling with supply chain issues, and boasting transparently thin margins, that currently silences conservative viewpoints. There doesn’t appear to be any concern about actual merit or entertaining the consumers. And when they finally get to number seven above, this amorphous language looks like pure extortion on the part of activists that wish to decide what constitutes “abuse”, “racism”, “xenophobia”, “transphobia”, etc. Who are the arbiters of such accusations? Could this lead to any sort of tyrannical oversight, or at the very least, abuse? Wouldn’t neutral civility be a better approach? This sounds a lot like rule by hegemony.
Kneon at Clownfish TV had this to say:
The Image Comics union sounds a lot like the Kickstarter union.
So more gatekeeping by committee. This will be abused for sure.
It’ll probably go down like the Kickstarter union, where Kickstarter used the pandemic to boot unionized employees.
No freelancers? Just staff?
— Kneon (@Kneon) November 1, 2021
Perhaps a union could be helpful to the industry, but this kind of flawed mission statement from replaceable staffers is not going to be the key that turns that lock. Will diverse opinions, such as anyone who doesn’t want to join the union, be allowed to stay at the company? Will this ever result in work stoppages or delays in books getting out? What happens when they suddenly think Erik Larsen’s kiddie porn images in Savage Dragon are ‘problematic‘. Will they be able to remove him from the company he founded unless he makes reparations?
Some of the challenges to starting a union in the current comics industry
- Amateur writers are writing comics: a union might negotiate a contract that includes set rates based on qualifications, but ultimately the free market decides what’s bought and what comics don’t move. The problem with today’s “woke” industries, is they are not making consumable products that are merited. They’re lectures. Lectures don’t sell. A union’s power comes from it’s ability to negotiate and leverage their ability to force the union members to strike. What would keep a company like Image from going to outside freelancers? In today’s economy, not much.
- Even with union contracts, companies get to determine workplace rules and the consequences of violating the rules. Remember when Chuck Wendig made some mean tweets and Marvel fired him for it? His asinine behavior impacts the reputation of Marvel/Disney who still want to protect their public perception. A union may have turned that into a court battle, even though the company was well within their rights to terminate him.
- In current year, Marvel, DC, and Image’s workforce is international, and that means they’re not necessarily subject to U.S. law. Plus the fact that many of these office staffers can apparently work from home, they’re even more easily replaceable. That lessens any union’s strength.
When you get right down to it, the biggest strength creators have regarding the way they are treated by a publisher is the consumers’ perception of them and their work and their desire for the work from those creators. Does this union think they are going to tell Todd McFarlane what he can and cannot do with his Spawn products? Or cancel a book by Erik Larsen if he includes his signature problematic themes in Savage Dragon? Didn’t these guys leave Marvel Comics for the very creative freedom and ability to capitalize on their popularity and merit that this sort of union could threaten?
More transparency, better structure, and better pay? Of course we support that, but it should always be according to merit and market. It should also be noted that Image Comics has not officially responded to this announcement.