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Former Marvel editorial staffer Alejandro Arbona appeared to have the perfect job. “People always got really excited when they asked what I did and I told them I worked at Marvel, but I would always counter, ‘You have no idea how hard and demoralizing it is,’” Arbona recalls. “The hours are long, the work is overwhelming, and the pay is low.”
In the decade since Arbona left Marvel to work as a freelance writer and editor, workplaces in the publishing sector of the industry arguably haven’t changed significantly. But on Nov. 1, staffers from Image Comics — home to Spawn, The Walking Dead and Savage Dragon franchises — formed a union called Comic Book Workers United (CBWU), with 10 of the 12 eligible staffers voting to organize and go public. The employees were assisted by organizers from the Communications Workers of America, a labor giant organizing workers across multiple industries.
“Labor organizing is something the staff at Image Comics have been discussing for a few years,” the Image staffers tell The Hollywood Reporter via email. (The group responded to questions as a collective.) “Many of us have backgrounds in or adjacent to unions, including several of the founders, whose work being successfully adapted for the big and small screen has meant working with or, in some cases, actually being represented by unions.”
While unions are a long-standing reality for the movie-making parent companies of publishers like DC and Marvel, the comic book industry has historically been resistant, with publishers having fired creators discussing the possibility in the past. No creative guild exists solely for comic book freelancers; the Writers Guild of America’s minimum basic agreement is based upon work developed for broadcast rather than print, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America only recently voted to admit comic writers and graphic novelists. “We’re crafting membership requirements for this new group of creators,” SFWA president Jeffe Kennedy says of the organization’s current position.
Of the nine goals the CBWU lists on its website, there is an obvious through-line, visible via repeated requests for transparency in terms of workload and employer expectations; the group asks for the opportunity to provide “white glove attention for all the books we publish … in reasonable proportion to the actual quantity of output we generate.”
The CWA has been “instrumental” in the organization process, according to CBWU members. “From the beginning, this has been an open process of identifying people’s needs, goals and concerns and using that information to map out a working plan of improvement for the company overall,” they explain. “Once we had a firm foundation of achievable goals and felt enough information and education about the process had been reached, we gave everyone who was eligible the option to go public and ask for voluntary recognition.”
Image Comics has so far failed to acknowledge the request for voluntary recognition, something the CBWU says is “disappointing.” A Nov. 5 deadline passed with no official response from the company, although the company did issue a statement earlier that day reporting that the National Labor Relations Board was reviewing a petition filed by the CWA to allow eligible members of Image’s staff to vote for CWA representation. The statement ended, “Everyone at Image is committed to working through this process, and we are confident that the resolution to these efforts will have positive long-term benefits.”
Undeterred by Image’s lack of recognition, the CBWU is asking supporters to lobby the company directly to voluntarily recognize the union, seeing the potential for their efforts to be a game-changer for the industry as a whole. Although the CBWU is only open to Image Comics employees, the group believes the hunger is out there among staff at other publishers.
“We wish we could share the sheer volume of responses we have received from people working at other publishers, asking for advice on how to start the process themselves,” the group says. “As it stands, all we can do is put them in contact with the fantastic people at the CWA, wish them well as they begin their own journey, and promise to stand up for them when they decide to go public, as they have stood up for us.”
Sources inside Marvel and DC say that, for now, there hasn’t been increased discussion around unionizing, but it may simply be a matter of time. “I can’t even remember how many times my former Marvel co-workers and I floated the idea of unionization,” Arbona says of his time at the company. “For us, it was just idle speculation and wishful thinking. Unfortunately, we always came to the same self-defeating conclusions about who’d join us, who wouldn’t, and how the company would respond.”
For its part, the CWA is prepared to assist whichever comics workers are prepared to organize — and doesn’t see the industry’s historical lack of organization as an issue. “Management in every industry in the United States has been hostile to union organizing — the comic book industry is no different,” a CWA rep says in a statement to THR. “What is different is that workers are fed up and ready to use the power they have when they join together to make real changes. When workers are ready to organize, we are ready to help them.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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