So why aren’t there any unions for comic book creators then?
Today, Comic Book Workers United announced their organization as a union for Image Comics staff, with the potential to spread throughout the industry. Now that’s just for editing, marketing, and editorial, not the comic book creators themselves. For starters, across the industry, comic book writers, artists, colorists and editors, and generally freelancers – sometimes publishers and marketers are too. So could they also unionize? This is what fueled many reactions to the news. Well no. Because in the United States of America, it is illegal for freelancers to organize. But given that today everyone seems to be asking questions about it, it was worth copying and pasting from a previous post on this topic from three years ago with minor edits. Remember, I’m not a lawyer, I don’t even play it on the internet.
In an industry where standard per-page rates have not kept pace with inflation so much but have fallen, for writers, pencils, inkers, colorists, letters, even as publishers have grown rich. Chances are, comic book creators will be paid less than they would have been ten or twenty years ago. Some of it is driven by technology, but most of it is not.
One of the main stumbling blocks is that in most places in the United States organizing a freelance union for collective bargaining can fall under antitrust laws, which are aimed at combating fixation. prices. The famous Taft-Hartley Act of 1946 explicitly excluded “anyone with independent contractor status” from unionizing in the section which already excluded domestic and agricultural workers from the possibility of exercising this right. Indeed, many creators have incorporated themselves as limited companies, and if they discussed among themselves, for example, the fixing of minimum prices for the work, it could be qualified as collusion and pursued by the federal authorities.
Several people, including Neal Adams, Barry Windsor Smith, Dick Giordano, Frank Miller, Steve Gerber, Steven Grant and more have explored the possibility of comic book creators unionizing in the ’70s and’ 80s, but to no avail, bumping into the law in the matter. The trade union of the self-employed exists but does not participate in deliberations on collective bargaining with employers, for the anti-competitive reasons set out above. It does, however, help with health care, insurance, and other arrangements that an American freelance writer may find more difficult or more expensive to acquire.
There are existing guilds that cover some freelancers who have been protected by law, such as the Writers Guild Of America. However, they are limited in extending their coverage and mandate to include comic book creators. It would only work if the employees were real employees, like Tampa-based CrossGen. Or if the people covered were editors, most of whom are employed as staff with relatively low salaries – although even this industry is turning to freelance work as well. It could be argued that exclusive comic book creators, who engage with exclusive publishers, are treated as de facto employees depending on the state in which they operate.
DC Comics is probably keeping an eye out for a class action alleging that Uber drivers in California are employees under state law, especially since the California Supreme Court issued a ruling that changed the independent contractor status test in California, which ‘Uber disputes.
And some municipalities have already decided to grant independent contractors the right to organize. Seattle City Council Passed Bill allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to form a union, though the companies have appealed to the courts. And instead, concert economy guilds are formed in New York City. while the the law may change in Canada to allow a greater union presence.
That being said, many people who might be eligible to join such a union or guild if it were legal, may not be inclined to do so. Many designers prefer individually negotiated deals that they have managed to make for themselves. Psychologically, the concept of American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, libertarianism, and pure and cursed bloodthirsty spirit can do more to defeat such a collective gathering than any law would.
But the launch of United cartoon workers, representing Image Comics staff members, has the potential to travel much further. Maybe one day even challenge the existing law and affect people like… Marvel?