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Monday, Feb 25, 2013, 2:09 pm

We Visually Render the 99%

By Rebecca Burns

When more than 400 visual effects artists staged a demonstration against outsourcing in their industry during the Academy Awards ceremony yesterday, the sour reaction from entertainment reporters had a familiar ring: “So numerous and complex are the problems facing the visual effects sector,” complained Variety, “that the protesters didn't have a single agenda, or a single goal.”

For the media's hostility, the Oscars protesters might as well have been a band of Occupiers. But there were some noticeable differences: The proverbial streets that the throng of techies took to happened to be red-carpeted, and the demonstration's organizers actually chartered a plane to fly overhead with a protest banner in tow. The march of technicians, moreover, was engineered to the point that one person's job was to methodically tag each participant with a small piece of green tape in order to obtain a precise crowd count (The final, weirdly specific, number circulated was 438).

Nevertheless the demonstration, organized by groups including the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), had a message that was decidedly political. Carrying signs that read, “We Want a Piece of the Pi,” the workers who create spectacular on-screen effects for films like The Life of Pi were highlighting the value their work adds to an industry that in return provides short spurts of torturous working hours followed by long periods of unemployment. According to the Guardian, the protest was sparked when Rhythm & Hues, a visual effects studio that worked on The Life of Pi and other award-winning films, filed for bankruptcy last week.

The sight of highly-skilled creative workers agitating publicly elicits mild amusement mostly because it's such a rare one. But as Barbara and John Ehrenreich document in a report excerpted last week by In These Times, the “professional-managerial class” that includes artists, journalists and other professionals is quickly succumbing to the same conditions that have longer plagued blue-collar workers. Which raises the question: If the yuppie dream is in fact dying, could yuppies rejoin the fold of the working class?

Some recent initiatives suggest that yuppies, when left to their own devices, will organize as yuppies. Writing in Dissent last year, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian critiques the 200,000 member-strong Freelancers' Union (FU) that allows its members to access affordable group health insurance, but is loathe to bargain collectively with employers or identify as part of the Left. Abrahamian suggests that while the FU is reacting to sweeping changes in the nature of work, its lukewarm advocacy model simply isn't up to the task:

The prospect of the Freelancers Union’s bringing about nationwide policy changes is less convincing. It is unclear how its constituents—who really could be re-named the Hipster Union—will become a political force strong enough to take on Washington and Wall Street if their so-called solidarity extends only to a small group of likeminded individualists.

Entertainment unions, most of which are organized into guild-like structures along craft lines, have long been a bastion of this kind of narrow, technocratic self-interest. (The IATSE, interestingly, also played a role in Hollywood blacklisting during the anti-Communist fervor of the 1940s, though it has since issued a statement of regret). But there are also powerful counter-examples to this tendency: Creative workers gained important rights after the Writers' Guild launched a high-profile strike in 2008 that hit the industry where it was vulnerable and openly sought solidarity from the broader labor movement. Creative and other professionals will increasingly have common cause with what remains of the traditional working class because yuppies have always been, in most senses of the term, workers—they'll just have to learn to act a bit more like it.

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times staff writer and assistant editor based in Chicago, covering labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at] Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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