Someone had heard about the
IWW from a friend, got in touch with the union through the Internet and
arranged to meet and discuss ways to claim a stolen salary. That’s actually how
many of our Claim Your Pay campaigns begin, but our most recent one was a bit
out of the ordinary. This is the story of a victorious campaign, the biggest in
the history of our branch thus far.
In her first message sent to the IWW at the end of January, a worker tells us about a chic restaurant that had closed its doors, and workers having their paychecks bouncing back and worked hours not being paid. We decided to call her to hear more about the situation, to then find out that there were 11 workers from that restaurant who unpaid hours and/or bounced paychecks! The information is passed on to the union volunteers taking care of Claim Your Pay campaigns. Considering the magnitude of the situation, a team of 3 Wobblies is formed. Quickly, we organized a meeting with as many workers as possible. 5 of the 11 workers attended this first meeting, where we added up every salary that was to be claimed through the campaign, and came to realize that more than $20 000 were at stake! We also noted down all relevant information about the restaurant’s boss : in addition to the closed restaurant, he co-owns a chain of coffee shops in Montreal and a coffee distribution company. He also has a bad habit of not paying his employees; the workers at the meeting had heard stories similar to their own spanning the last 10 years. That meant that the boss wouldn’t be easily impressed. This time however, the claims were organized and supported by a union. Not wasting any time, we established a calendar with the direct actions that were to be undertaken in the upcoming weeks.
All the IWW campaigns to claim stolen wages rely on direct action. The workers at our meeting had all made a complaint to CNESST, except for one who was getting paid under the table. But these complaints can take up to a year or more before a worker can gain their claim, and for many workers, a year is way too long to wait when the amount due is three to four work-weeks. Direct action puts pressure on the employers by convincing them that they have more to lose if they do not pay their employees, all without going through the legal system. The workers are always the ones democratically choosing the actions that will be taken to win their claim, even though the supporting union members can always suggest some.
The first step was to send letters of demands to their boss asking for each of the stolen salaries, informing him of the precise amounts that he needed to pay and that a union was now on the case. While the letters were on their way to his mailbox, the boss contacted one of the workers, with the intention to pay her after she had just complained publicly. Members of the union accompanied the worker to that meeting, seizing the opportunity to hand him the letters of demands. He took them without any reaction, and we did not hear from him. No message, no phone call… Time to take action !
We started by sending emails denouncing the situation to many of his work partners, without any result. We continued our actions with a phone zap, during which many people called the owner’s business to block telephone lines for two hours, followed by a negative comments blitz on the business’ social media (Facebook, Google, Yelp, etc). To add public pressure, we published on the union’s blog an article exposing him and all the unpaid salaries. At this point, 3 weeks have gone by and some workers started receiving messages from the boss threatening them with a lawsuit and claiming that he wasn’t scared of a union. Still mounting the pressure, the next action began in early March, by showing up in front of the coffee shops he co-owns and flyering. The managers freaked out a little bit, but we managed to flyer for three days in a row and in front of 3 different coffee shops without much trouble.
It is during that week that the union finally gets contacted by the boss to arrange a meeting, which took place on March 14th. During this meeting, he served us the usual platitudes : ‘’It’s only a misunderstanding, I’m the real victim here, we could have just talked this out, no need to attack me’’ and etc. Nevertheless, we still got out of that meeting with about $12 000 in checks! Six out of the 11 workers were now fully paid, but there were still 5 workers with unpaid wages.
The rest of the campaign scales over 4 months, during which we discussed and negotiated with the boss to get the rest of the stolen salaries. At some point, it seemed to us that the boss was ignoring us, so we organized another small flyering action at two of his coffee shops, to get his attention once more. The campaign was fully victorious last June 19th, when the remaining paychecks were finally delivered by their employer. One worker did not receive all of her wages, because she decided to stop the direct action campaign and to throw all of weight behind her complaint to the CNESST. We care to mention that the worker that was working under the table has had her full salary paid, and without any particular difficulty.
In total, the efforts from these 11 workers and the union have helped claim $20 995 in unpaid work hours and indemnities. Without any doubt, a direct action campaign means more work than simply filing a complaint, but this victory shows us once more that armed with solidarity, we can overcome any obstacle and build a better world for tomorrow.
This article is not our usual cup of tea. Instead it is part of a new series of articles by our union local for freelancers that will examine the various issues faced by workers who’s sector is, by its very nature, unpredictable and subject to change from day-to-day. And, more importantly, what we can do about these issues.
Does the film critic matter anymore? I’ve seen rumblings to this effect more and more lately, but as with all things, this too shall pass. It’s a transient take; I’m barely in my 30s and cinema has died and been saved about a dozen times while I’ve been alive. Critics are thinkers; they contextualize the art of the world. But I’m not here to debate the role of the critic. What I am here to do is break down the labour that goes into a fairly standard film review. Because, naturally, criticism is work.
Little is taken more for granted than the written word as published online. There’s been a steady devaluing of internet culture writing as a paid service for over a decade now. Legends in the field can’t hold down a contract. Editors are in a race to the bottom to see how much content they can squeeze out of their stable with a next-to-nonexistent bankroll. Everything you see online has been written by someone and a shocking amount of it is done for peanuts.
So how much is a film review worth? Let’s break it down.
Now before I go any further, I’d like to point out this is 100% guesswork. The rates I’m going to be using are based on some solid hunches and a little fifth-grade math. What I’m trying to get at here is a ballpark figure that’s higher than, well, zero.
Now, before you even set pen to paper to write that vicious pan or that gushing notice, you actually have to watch the damn movie. So it stands to reason this is part of the job, and thus you should be paid for it. Consider it like a form of training; this is the part of the job where you learn what you are dealing with. Without it, you can’t do the job. Critics should absolutely have the time they spend watching movies remunerated. Now, I know that critics are often invited to screenings or get links or are otherwise provided with a copy of the film. But you’re not watching this for funsies, bud! If we are going to exist in a capitalist system, and if someone is going to extract value from your work (in this case, a piece of film criticism), a fair wage should be expected. That time when your butt is parked in the theatre seat is part of that value extraction because it’s an inextricable part of the work you are doing. No movie, no review, simple as that.
“So wait,” someone in the wings will undoubtedly say, “does that mean a video game critic should be paid for the hours and hours they sink into a game in order to write about it?” Absolutely. 100%. “But Breath of the Wild is like a 45-hour game?!” You want me to play the whole thing and write about it? Pay up, son.
So if we assume an hourly wage of $15 an hour (and really, why wouldn’t I) and an average movie length of two hours, that’s $30 that should be in your pocket right up front. We haven’t even started putting words together. Again, using some shaky math assuming a 1:1 running time-to-writing time ratio, a $15 an hour wage, and a 700-word text, we end up with a rate of about four cents a word (which is on the low end of what freelancers charge). So the minimum rate for that 700-word text would be $60. A short 200-word capsule adds up to $38. A 1,000-word longread would be worth $70. This rate of four cents a word plus a living wage for the runtime of the film is the absolute floor of what your labour is worth.
Now this is all for a single movie. These numbers absolutely do not scale for a whole week; those keeping score at home will notice that our average 700-word piece has cost four hours of labour: two to watch, and two to write. There is no way in Hell someone is going to watch ten movies in a week and write about all of them. That is a surefire way to annihilate your work-life balance. Plus, the high end number of new wide releases in a given week is four, with the average being closer to three. But let’s assume a publication’s movie section has one person on the new release beat, and let’s say there’s a big four-movie weekend coming up. Let’s take April 6-8, 2018 as an example. This weekend saw the wide release of:
A Quiet Place
The Miracle Season
All four of these were covered in the New York Times So using the numbers established above with the length of their respective review in the Times as a baseline, let’s break these movies down as far as the labour cost goes (i.e. 15$ an hour of runtime, four cents a word):
A Quiet Place: (651 words*$0.04) + (91’*($15/60’)) = $48.79
So if one person covers the whole weekend’s slate, that adds up to a payout of $196,57. Now these movies are a bit on the short side and one of those review is basically a capsule; if we maintain our two-hour, 700-word example, a four-movie weekend would add up to a $232 payout, which is still not what I would call a living wage. But there is precedent for being able to live off the new release grind. Let me take you to the far-away, pre-recession land of 2008, and the working rate of Mike D’Angelo, currently one of many film-crit lifers working as a hired gun. As per this tweet, he was paid $400 per review while working at the Las Vegas Weekly. That’s four zero zero. That’s a rate he negotiated up from $200 a review because, according to him, he didn’t “need the gig.” Mr. D’Angelo, and presumably other full-time critics around the same time, was pulling enough dosh writing to earn a living wage writing two or three reviews, or about 2100 words, per week, and held enough saw to negotiate twice the rate he was initially offered. It boggles the mind.
Let’s get depressing: let’s take the rate D’Angelo was pulling in 2008 according to his tweet (i.e. $400 per review, 600-800 words per review) and break it down. Let’s keep the same hourly rate of $15 for the time spent watching movies and assume an average weekend release of three movies, at two hours a movie. Six hours, $90. This would leave $310 for the actual act of writing, and if we assume an average review length of 700 words, that gives us a per-word rate of just north of 44 cents.
This was a roundabout way of saying something you already knew. Capitalism collapsed whatever safety net writers had a decade go and has hastened a race to cut the most corners since. But you should be compensated fairly for your work, no exceptions, and by banding together, fair rates can become a reality instead of a rarity.
As you may have already heard, on 11 April 2018, Red Bee Media (A Part of Ericsson) unceremoniously shuttered the Montreal branch of their Access Services division. A more thorough breakdown of the incident will be forthcoming, but suffice it to say that the shuttering was swift and vicious. Rather than negotiate with the representatives of the Montreal Subtitlers Union in good faith, the powers-that-be at Red Bee Media decided that it would be less trouble to axe their entire Canadian division in one fell swoop. This is not an exaggeration: the workers who were in that day went from performing their usual duties to being ushered into a surprise meeting to being removed from the Ericsson campus by security in the span of 20 minutes.
But all hope is not lost. Though our campaign was felled by the twin plagues of corporate greed and union-busting, the Montreal Subtitlers Union lives on. We invite other subtitlers working in Montreal, freelancers and full-timers alike, to band together under our banner to fight for a living wage, fair working conditions, and adequate support for the work that we do. Your fellow workers deserve better. The deaf and hard of hearing community deserve better. And employers deserve to know that we won’t be taken advantage of. The fight continues. Solidarity forever.
The Industrial Workers of the World has many branches around the world, including in Montreal. Its members strive for a union model based on robust working class solidarity called Solidarity Unionism. This model emphasizes direct action at the workplace as exemplified in our campaigns at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York City or at Frite-Alors! in Montreal.