The process of unionization in the comic industry has never been for the faint of heart. Since the first attempts to form a writers’ union among freelancers at National Comics during the 1960s, the story of collective action among the business’ employees has largely been one of false starts, aborted efforts and legal setbacks. Viewed from the perspective of this troubled history, the membership of Image Comics’ nascent Comic Book Workers United might have received the most surprising thing of all this week: a bit of good news.
On Wednesday, March 2, CBWU, an organization made up of salaried employees at the Portland-based publisher, announced that they had formally ratified their first union contract, establishing them as the first recognized union among mainstream comic publishers based in the United States. The announcement is the culmination of a process that has stretched across more than a year, beginning in November of 2021, when the 12 employees of Image–10 of whom constituted CBWU’s membership–announced their intention to form a union.
When the publisher declined to recognize the union voluntarily, CBWU began a voting process under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board, which resulted in a 7-2 vote in favor of unionization this January. Though the CBWU’s membership is small, and their position still unique in the industry, the March contract ratification is nevertheless a watershed in the story of the comic industry’s collective action: the first time that a concerted effort on the part of one publisher’s employees has resulted in legally-recognized and potentially significant gains.
Following the announcement of the vote’s ratification, the members of CBWU released a statement on Twitter and their union’s website calling the vote a “first step” in their progress toward a larger set of goals for employees. Speaking to The Comics Journal via email–Comic Book Workers United has no formal spokesperson, and makes all public statements collectively and unanimously–the union elaborated on what that might mean in practice:
“To clarify, Image management had a legal obligation to recognize our union when we won our election in January of 2022,” CBWU told us. “Now that we have an agreed-upon contract, the next step will be to make sure everyone is familiar with the terms of the contract and to put it into action. We started at Point A and have mutually agreed upon a Point B, but some of the finer details may necessitate further discussion with Image. We anticipate some growing pains as both the workers and managers acclimate to the numerous changes that are being made. The big picture is to look at what we were able to accomplish this round, and come up with ways to build upon this framework for our next contract negotiation.”
Image’s management and ownership, for their part, have been quiet on the subject of the union since the announcement; contacted for comment on this article, Image representatives had not replied as of press time. Asked about the company’s position on their unionization, CBWU expressed dissatisfaction with their employers’ silence, as well as what they characterized as an attitude of “resistance” to their efforts to organize:
“We have yet to be contacted by Image management since we held our ratification vote,” CBWU told us. “There's been no formal response, and the progress we've made so far has been hard-won by our bargaining committee. The temperature of the water has been lukewarm at best - we've encountered significant resistance throughout the entire process. We expect all managers to be educated about the terms of the contract, and we will hold them accountable if they violate those terms…. It has been frustrating. There's been only obligatory participation in the process on the part of the company with very little willingness to discuss terms during bargaining and most proposals being met with cursory rejection.”
At the outset of their effort, CBWU outlined nine goals, which included (among other items) greater transparency of staff salaries and workloads, the addition of both more staff and a more diverse pool of recruited staffers, and the continuation of remote work options. Tangible progress toward these goals, however, may be some time in coming: the current contract for the union and its members extends for three years, at which point CBWU will once again be able to negotiate with management.
Nevertheless, CBWU told us that they remain committed in principle to the goals they enumerated, saying: “Those goals remain; they are our aspiration for our union and for Image Comics. Because Image management was unwilling to negotiate with us on anything outside of wages, benefits, and working conditions as they have traditionally been defined, we were not able to include most of those items in our contract.
“The contract lays a foundation. We now have a formal procedure to address issues as they arise and structured annual wages which address our goal of more transparency. Workers who form unions often face the kind of resistance we saw from Image Comics. It’s an attempt to demoralize us and break our unity. Sometimes the stalling tactics succeed, and workers never win first contracts.”
Perhaps most controversial among the nine goals was one which calls for “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.” Shortly after the goals were published, an Image company spokesperson told the website Vice, “Image was formed because the founders wanted to build a company where they and other creators could own and control their work without interference from their publisher.” In the same article, CBWU countered that the demand was one designed to protect employees from what they considered unsafe or uncomfortable environments owing to the content of their work they published, or the behavior of the creators behind it.
Controversy aside, CBWU continues to stand behind the demand, telling the Journal, “As we alluded to earlier, our list of goals was aspirational, including the controversial 'veto clause.' Image Comics has made it clear that they have no desire to listen to the concerns of their employees when it comes to decisions of who or what to publish. As with our other goals, we hope to revisit this conversation during the contract renewal phase as it remains a very important issue to us, to our readers, and to the future of our industry.”
One goal perhaps conspicuously absent from CBWU’s demands was any explicit call for higher salaries or pay rates. This, in CBWU’s view, was a strategic decision on their part that they nevertheless believe was selectively misinterpreted by Image management:
“Besides advocating for increased compensation when the volume or scope of an employee’s work grows, we notably did not list wages as one of our main priorities,” CBWU told us. “From the beginning, our priority was to encourage the hiring of more staff to address untenable workloads and hopefully make a better work-life balance more achievable. To our dismay, Image management disingenuously interpreted this as the union requesting to be switched to an hourly pay rate and to be made eligible for overtime pay. We were all salaried workers and did not want to lose the security and flexibility that came with that, but the compromise we achieved was a structured annual wage increase schedule that we're all happy with.”
CBWU’s success comes during a particularly propitious moment for unions in particular, and for labor on a wider level: 2022 saw 20 major labor strikes in the United States, an increase of 25% over the average for the prior two decades. And while that statistic can be misleading (labor strikes having rested at a historic low for most of that time), the rate of increase indicates a very real shift in climate: the result both of economic uncertainty during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a presently bullish market for employment, which bolsters the bargaining power of employees. Indeed, the events at Image have already begun to ripple out beyond that company. In May of last year, staff at manga publisher Seven Seas Entertainment announced their own intentions to form a union, which was subsequently recognized voluntarily by the publisher.
Speaking to the Journal, CBWU expressed both support for the United Workers of Seven Seas, as well as a hope that their own efforts will inspire like-minded organization at other publishers, including Marvel and DC. “It’s absolutely possible for workers anywhere to join together and form a union, and we highly recommend it to every single worker,” CBWU said. “One of the challenges at larger companies like Marvel or DC is that they would likely have even more resources at their disposal to hire union-busting attorneys to intimidate their employees. But we’ve seen workers take on some of the largest corporations in the world and win. This wave of organizing isn’t ending anytime soon.”
CBWU’s position was favorable not only because of the climate for labor negotiation outside of the comics industry, but also because of their own place within it: as direct employees of Image Comics, CBWU’s membership stands on a particularly firm set of history and case law when it comes to the legalities of unionizing. For the bulk of writers, artists, letterers, colorists and other work-for-hire comic creators, the reality is decidedly different.
While periodic (and largely quixotic) attempts were made among comic book creators to unionize as early as the 1940s, the first concerted effort at forming a mainstream comic creators’ union in the United States occurred at National (later DC) Comics during the mid 1960s, and was led by a group of writers including Silver Age mainstays Bob Haney, John Broome and Arnold Drake. In his recollections of the time, assembled by Mike W. Barr in Comic Book Artist #5 in 1999, Haney attributed the would-be union’s failure to a strategic stalling by National’s management, as well as the refusal of higher-paid and generally more famous artists to sign on with their agitating colleagues. As Haney recalled in the article, “Our big problem was the artists. Because if we didn’t have the artists with us - writers are somewhat more interchangeable than artists in the business…. If we had three or four of the major artists, we would have had the clout to go into DC and get some decent conditions, especially in terms of rate.”
In any event, that initial effort was unsuccessful, and subsequent spotty attempts to repeat the initiative have followed much the same pattern. In addition, there is a potentially more intractable complication: because nearly all work-for-hire creatives are classified by publishers as independent contractors, rather than employees, they are ostensibly beyond the purview of the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right of collective bargaining in the United States. Indeed, when asked about the potential for creators to organize similar efforts to their own, CBWU echoed this prevailing sentiment, telling the Journal: “While we've received words of support, both publicly and privately, from comics creators who fall under the freelancer category, current U.S. labor law prohibits them from forming unions, so there is not a lot that the CBWU can do other than encourage people to fight for much-needed labor law reform. One of the many things we’ve learned during this process is that the laws and tides of the labor movement are rapidly growing and evolving.”
Other observers are less certain. Shaun Richman is a labor historian and former union organizer, who currently teaches at the SUNY campus known now as Empire State College, and soon to be redubbed Empire State University. (Richman was wryly pleased to note that he was thus speaking to The Comics Journal from the canonical alma mater of Peter Parker.) Richman notes that while work-for-hire creators are indeed presently classified as independent contractors, that status is more malleable, and more political, than is generally presumed.
“I would note that case law on this sort of thing swings wildly between Democratic and Republican administrations,” Richman said. “And in fact, it’s swinging ever more wildly. And in the Biden administration, you have really one of the best Labor Departments, and one of the best National Labor Relations Boards, that you’ve had since I’ve been alive. So who knows, if you put a case in front of them, how they would rule.”
Nevertheless, Richman said, the threat of legal challenges to unionization on the part of employers is a chilling factor against unionization regardless of legal outcomes. “I mean, Jesus Christ, the fucking taxi companies do this,” he said. “Uber and Lyft do this. And in any common sense definition, if you’re driving a car on the Uber app or the Lyft app, you work for Uber or Lyft.”
Even so, there is ample motivation for creators to make the attempt. One comic creator who has been involved in previous efforts at freelance organization, and who spoke to the Journal on condition of anonymity, told us that page rates for rank-and-file freelancers have been falling across the board in recent years, especially among less-celebrated positions such as colorists: “When I started working at DC a few years ago, the page rate was $121 a page,” the creator told us. “The page rate at DC now for people breaking in is between $50 and $90.”
Asked about the possible reasons behind this decline, the creator mentioned the increasing use by major publishers of overseas, and often less expensive, creative labor. They mentioned one prominent Marvel Comics editor whose job, they described, was “to go overseas and start courting talent in Indonesia and India. They get a lot of talent from, I think, Brazil now. So it’s very important to me when we’re talking about this stuff to understand that these people who live in other countries, they deserve fair wages, too. And it’s extremely exploitative to go there and universally drive down rates, because they’re incredibly talented creators, and they just happen to live in an area where it is less expensive than the U.S.”
Add to that the admittedly thin profit margins of the American comics industry, and the result is a not-irrational reticence to compromise the security of employers and employees alike. As the same creator told us, “I’ve talked to Dark Horse editors about what would happen if comics artists unionized and raised rates. And this editor said that, basically, Dark Horse would go out of business - like, budgets are so narrow that actual, affordable wages for most artists would put most companies out of business.”
But perhaps the most persistent obstacle to creator unionization is a general hesitancy to rock the boat, lest creators compromise what they themselves view as an enviable position in an aspirational industry. “It strikes me as [being like] the World Wrestling Federation, and [Vince] McMahon, and Hulk Hogan,” Richman said. “Where it’s kind of like: the work is awful, you’re not getting respected, you’re not getting compensated for what you’re doing. But you aspired to be here since you were a kid. And now that you’re here, it’s a really conflicted thing.”
Nevertheless, Richman draws a comparison to the celebrated strike among animators at the then-non-unionized Walt Disney Productions in 1941, which overcame barriers. “It’s Disney,” Richman said. “If you love animation, that’s the place you wanted to be. And yet, those artists, those writers, they all went on strike. They did the thing. And partly it was during an upsurge of worker organizing because of the war, and that’s essentially the answer: it’s got to be part of the social movement. It’s got to be part of ‘now is the time.’”
This, in Richman’s view, is true whether in the case of freelance creator/contractors or salaried staff like CBWU workers at Image: comics do not, and never have, stood apart from the social climate and labor realities of the world at large. They and their workers rise and fall according to the tides of labor, the economy, and political action. And the tides today, in Richman’s estimation, are high: “We are in a moment where there is real organizing heat amongst workers who have some creative bones in them,” he said. “Who have some critique of society as it exists, and how it should be, and have generally reached the point of ‘fuck this shit. It’s time to fight back.’ And that is happening.”