When Comic Book Workers United, a new union composed of Image Comics salaried employees, announced its formation last week, it was unclear whether the comics publisher would voluntarily recognize the new organization and begin negotiating a new contract addressing some of CBWU’s concerns and objectives. So far, Image has not only ignored the request, it has put up a small roadblock for the group. io9 spoke with a representative from CBWU to find out more.
Rather than addressing CBWU—which is made up of staff at Image Comics, rather than freelance artists, colorists, writers, or letterers—directly, Image Comics instead responded by announcing its participation in a secret-ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board to determine whether the Communications Workers of America union should represent Image’s workers. Though Image’s move provides one potential path toward unionization with the CWA, it could also be interpreted as the company rebuffing the CBWU’s initial ask for recognition and the commencement of negotiations about the issues it’s specifically outlined as its members’ priorities.
Following news of Image pushing for the secret ballot vote, CBWU reached out to io9 with the following statement:
“As of 5:00pm [Friday, November 5] Image has failed to formally acknowledge our request for voluntary recognition and we are internalizing that lack of response, coupled with a Twitter post the company made indicating their intention to take this to the NLRB for a vote, as a denial of our request.
This is disappointing, given that 10 of the 12 eligible staff members have already voted to form and go public with the union, but we are strong in our principles and the election changes nothing. That said, it is not too late for voluntary recognition to happen. Supporters can help us achieve our goal by continuing to email, write to, tweet at, and otherwise request that Image voluntarily recognize the CBWU.”
In a longer, more formal interview, CBWU opened up to io9 about what all it’s trying to accomplish within Image specifically, and how the changes it’s pushing for are part of a larger conversation that impacts workers throughout the industry. While CBWU as it exists now is small and focused on the situation at Image, its members are confident that growth is in their future—both in terms of their ranks, and the potential impact their organizing could have on the comics space as a whole.
Charles Pulliam-Moore, io9: You described some of the reasons that you’ve all come together to form the organizing committee, but I’m interested to hear a bit more about why now. What about this moment specifically felt like the right time to begin organizing?
CBWU: We initially started organizing before the pandemic, but when four of us were laid off in April 2020, it took a backseat. Obviously the pandemic put an enormous mental strain on pretty much everyone, but those left over after the four employees were laid off and several others quit were expected to take on their work—work they were not necessarily qualified for—in addition to their regular duties, while maintaining the same standards of quality that Image strives for. Not only did we suffer undue stress in an already uncertain time, we feel our creators suffered too. There’s something to be said for the helplessness of a lack of control in your workplace on top of the lack of control over the world and our lives we were facing during quarantine. But our numbers recently changed, and two people who were laid off were hired back.
Though things have improved slightly, the uncertainty remains with us, and I think the current political atmosphere along with a renewed sense of resolve have given us the push we needed to finally follow through with something we’ve talked about for ages. We find ourselves in a unique place politically—the world is particularly receptive to discussions on labor issues right now. People everywhere are advocating for themselves, and it’s as good a time as any for us to do so as well. Now is a great time to reiterate that we love our jobs and the work we do, but we also know now we deserve to be fairly represented.
io9: To your minds, why have comics workers been hesitant to organize in the past? Why have publishers been slow or resistant to acknowledge the kinds of concerns you’ve listed as being top concerns?
CBWU: One reason is we are extremely busy putting out quality books for all our readers. When you’re so busy working, it’s hard to remember to advocate for yourself. We also believe the comic book industry as a whole has a culture not unlike crunch culture. There is a narrative in the modern workplace that to be proud of your company is to never ask for anything to change. Publishing is still trying to figure out how to advocate for its workers. We’re saying it’s simple–offer us a seat at the table, a little democracy will go a long way.
Another reason is that there’s a definite toxic culture surrounding things like comics, animation, games—careers that are perceived as fun and desirable. The narrative pushed by authorities who will benefit from it is that if you have managed to get a job in these industries, if you’re allowed to work with these things that you love and these people you admire, you need to take exactly what you’re given, because you can easily be replaced by someone else just as hungry for your position. We love our jobs, we do feel lucky, we’re not afraid to put in the time, but we’ve come to realize that we are specialized, necessary workers with independent value, and we have a right to advocate for ourselves.
io9: Many of those concerns you’ve listed are issues similarly faced by the freelance contractors who work with comic book publishers across the industry. Beyond the organization of employees at Image, does CBWU plan to take on an advocacy role for contract workers on a larger scale?
CBWU: CBWU PDX is strictly for full-time workers of Image Comics. Though there is dire need for representation among the creatives who we serve and who really make the industry the amazing place it is, American labor law as it currently stands simply makes that sort of representation impossible. Inequitable working conditions are sadly the norm in this industry and other industries that largely rely on independent freelance creative talent, and there’s not a lot we can do about that.
That said, we’re aware of the privilege we have as full-time workers in an industry where that is not the norm, and we hope that we can use this position we find ourselves in now to facilitate a conversation that comics professionals have been trying to have for decades. This union is unprecedented, though not for lack of trying on the part of the comics professionals, and we’re hoping that it will be the foothold others in the industry need to advocate for themselves as well. For now, we can only wholeheartedly encourage freelancers to start a guild for their protection and ask those who read and enjoy comics to stay conscious of the injustice that contract workers in the U.S. face every day. But in the future, we hope that CBWU will serve as a larger umbrella organization to advocate for workers’ rights in the comic book industry as a whole.
io9: From your perspective, how receptive has Image been to CBWU’s organizing efforts thus far? Is the company engaging with good-faith talks with the organizing committee?
CBWU: CBWU has not directly received word from Image thus far. We are asking Image to voluntarily recognize our union and encourage our supporters to please ask them to do the same. The outpouring of support so far has been terrific, but some people may think that this is all over already. It’s only just begun.
io9: What message do you hope to send to workers at other comics publishers who might be considering their own organization efforts?
CBWU: Please get in contact with Communication Workers of America! You are protected by law to organize within your own publishing company. CWA walked us through this every step of the way. We want to say thank you to all the folks who have reached out to us about starting a union at their workplace, and how we’ve inspired them. Please know you can do the same for your organization too. This isn’t just about Image—this is about workers’ rights for everyone.
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