Founded in 1992, Portland-based Image Comics has been home to Spawn, The Walking Dead, Witchblade, Tank Girl, Wynona Earp … and soon, possibly, a fully recognized union.
Earlier this month, ten Image staffers announced that they had formed Comic Book Workers United, a union for comics industry professionals. With support from the Communications Workers of America, the union unveiled nine goals, most of which are consistent with other labor organizing efforts, such as pay transparency and clarity around job functions.
But there are also some goals that are fairly unique. For example, the workers want, “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.”
Several days after the announcement, Image declined to formally recognize the union. So where do we go from here?
“We had begun organizing before the pandemic, but put it on pause after 4 employees were laid off and others quit,” a union representative told The Stranger in an emailed interview that all CBWU members collaborated on.
(Update: Sources close to the company say that two of the employees who quit were in management and not eligible to join the union. According to CBWU, the loss of personnel at various levels within the company added to everyone's workload, making organizing difficult.)
The impact of the pandemic slowed their organizing, but activity resumed earlier this year, when two employees were hired back. Image has a relatively lean workforce — just 21 people, according to the union. Of those, 12 are eligible for collective bargaining status, working in fields such as sales, production, accounting, art, and more. Ten of those twelve employees are signatories to the unionizing announcement.
But those numbers could soon grow. “We'd be thrilled if employees at other publishers followed suit,” the union rep wrote. “It’s our goal to make the CBWU an umbrella organization for comic book workers everywhere seeking representation.” (Freelancers are not currently allowed to unionize in the United States.)
So far, the union says, they’ve received encouraging feedback from colleagues. “We've received an astounding amount of both public and private support from all over the comics industry,” the union wrote. “We hope that we're inspiring others to get together and talk about realizing their rights as workers and, as mentioned previously, we encourage anyone interested to reach out to us.”
But they’ve also faced criticism from a handful of conservative observers over the union's ask to vote to cancel comics that violate company values. Image has stumbled in recent years
over collaborations with creators accused of sexual misconduct (Update: see below) — most notably with Warren Ellis’s Fell. The union says these incidents “absolutely would not have happened had management taken the staff’s concerns on these matters into fair consideration.”
(Update: Sources with knowledge of the project point out that Image greenlit Fell before the allegations against Ellis were made public, and that the project is not currently moving forward. CBWU didn't specify which other incidents staff had raised concerns about, though in past years there have been public controversies regarding statements about a conservative comics reviewer, depictions of hate crimes, and POC representation.)
So far, Image’s response has been less than what the employees hoped for. (The company declined to comment for this story.) Several months ago on Facebook, Image founder Jim Valentino expressed support for unionization at Amazon, but that post no longer appears to be visible. Several days after the CBWU announcement, Image chose not to voluntarily recognize the group.
“They're engaging in some very typical union-busting tactics like drawing out the process,” the union rep wrote, “and attempting to ‘other’ the CWA with the language that they use, as if CBWU was not 100% organically grown by the Image staffers who compose the union.”
For now, Image workers are still holding out hope that the company will voluntarily recognize the union, but if that doesn’t happen, then eligible workers will likely hold a vote in four to eight week about whether to move ahead. (Since 10 of the 12 eligible workers are union organizers, it seems easy to predict how that vote would go.) Once the election is complete, bargaining will begin.
In the meantime, organizers are eager to connect with colleagues at other publishers. “If anyone in the industry is interested, please reach out to us,” they wrote. “We're happy to introduce you to the CWA!”