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Image Comics' workers union: Everything you need to know about Comic Book Workers United

The long road that Image Comics staff took to unionize, and what happened after

CBWU Image
Image credit: CBWU Image

It’s been some months since Comic Book Workers United, made up of staffers from Portland, Or.-based Image Comics, was ratified as the first union in the North American comic book industry — a history-making moment in the ongoing struggle for labor rights in an industry that has traditionally proven resistant to such things. How did the CBWU break through years of restraint (both from publishers and comic book staffers alike) to make it happen? How did we get here?

Secret origins of the Image Comics union

Comic Book Workers United announced itself to the world via a Twitter thread. “We, the workers of Image Comics, have formed a union,” the thread began back in November 2021. “For years, comics publishing workers have watched our professional efforts support creators and delight readers. Sadly, we have also watched that same labor be taken for granted at best and exploited at worst.” Alongside its Twitter account, the group — which consisted of 10 of Image’s 12 staff members — also unveiled a website, which included a list of their specific goals, as well as testimonials from the group’s membership.

An initial deadline of November 5, 2021, for Image Comics to voluntarily recognize the union passed with Image refusing to do so — the publisher instead released a statement saying that the National Labor Relations Board was reviewing a petition to allow staff to vote for representation, adding, “we are confident that the resolution to these efforts will have positive long-term benefits.” Instead, an election was set in place for mid-December, with results announced January 6, 2022: with only 2 staff members voting against the union, Image Comics had officially become the first unionized comic book publisher in the United States.

The first of many comic book publisher unions?

Becoming the first unionized comic book publisher was a feat — one all the more impressive in that it followed literally decades of failed attempts to do the same, with some previous efforts resulting in the wide scale dismissal of creative and editorial talent at publishers.

Notably, Comic Book Workers United is made up not of independent freelance creators, but employees at a specific publisher, which is a significant differentiator for this effort compared with those in the past; that said, it wasn’t as if such thoughts hadn’t been entertained before. “I can’t even remember how many times my former Marvel co-workers and I floated the idea of unionization,” writer, editor, and former Marvel staff Alejandro Arbona told the Hollywood Reporter. “For us, it was just idle speculation and wishful thinking. Unfortunately, we always came to the same self-defeating conclusions about who’d join us, who wouldn’t, and how the company would respond.”

Image’s success inspired others; in late May 2022, staff at Seven Seas Entertainment announced the formation of the United Workers of Seven Seas, becoming the first U.S. manga publisher to unionize. After initially rejecting calls to voluntarily recognize the union, Seven Seas eventually performed an about-turn and recognized the union in late June.

The events behind the scenes of the Image Comics union

After winning the election to be recognized, things went quiet for the Comic Book Workers United, at least in terms of the public view. Between early January and early May 2022, the group was entirely silent, leading many to wonder what — if anything — was happening with the union. The answer was, simply, that things can take time, especially when breaking new ground.

On May 30 2022, the group released a statement reading, “We understand that after the initial excitement of winning the vote, a period of relative silence can be a bit anticlimactic, but this is all a normal part of the process. We have been working diligently behind the scenes to make certain our union is able to achieve its objectives once we begin collaborating with Image Comics on the contract. We're grateful for everyone's patience and interest are happy to be able to inform you that we are now moving to this new stage in the process.”

And then, once again, silence.

The end of the beginning?

On March 2 2023, CBWU released a statement that read, “The CBWU is proud to announce that, on March 1st 2023, the workers of Image Comics voted overwhelmingly to ratify our first union contract! We were hopeful for, but could never have imagined, the outpouring of support we received when we began our collective bargaining journey. A lot has happened since that first announcement and we cannot begin to adequately express our gratitude to the community of people within and without the industry who have stood with us during contract negotiations. 

“As we celebrate this victory, we also want to take the opportunity to reaffirm that this contract is just the first step among many and we hope you will stick with us as we continue the fight for union representation and more equitable working conditions for everyone in the comic book industry and beyond. In closing, to those of you out there agitating, advocating, and organizing, we see you and we can’t wait to see, ‘What’s next?’”

If some had been expecting an answer to that beyond “more waiting,” perhaps they hadn’t been paying too much attention to the story so far — but this time, the wait for an update would be far shorter than most would expect… and the update wouldn’t be what many expected, either.

Enter the lawyers

On May 31, 2023, CBWU announced that it had filed Unfair Labor Practice charges against Image Comics with the National Labor Relations Board; the official NLRB website reveals that the charge had been made almost two weeks earlier, with CBWU announcing that it was making the following charges against Image:

  • Violation of section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act: Coercive Rules. “Image created a work rule barring solicitation of other employees or dissemination of literature during work hours. CBWU believes this to have been a discriminatory effort to discourage and restrict the ability of Union members to engage in protected organizing activity,” CBWU stated.
  • Violation of section 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act: Refusal to Bargain/Bad Faith Bargaining. “Image unilaterally implemented a new work procedure and initially rolled it out in a non-uniform fashion,” CBWU explained. The procedure was rolled out at different times, among different employees, with different instructions being given to different workers within the Bargaining Unit. The company refused requests to communicate with the Bargaining Committee over this change prior to implementation. Image Comics managers also misled certain employees to believe that this new policy was mandatory for all Union workers, but this is demonstrably false. The disorganization of the staggered rollout, despite being a clear failure on the part of Management, was used as a pretense for Management to issue more groundless discipline. Disciplinary actions have increased exponentially, with insufficient justification, lacking a full and fair investigation, without notification of the Union, and without the opportunity of having a Union Representative present. Union Representatives have yet to receive a single formal notice of any disciplinary actions.”
  • Violation of Section 8(a)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act:  Changes in Terms and Conditions of Employment. According to CBWU, “Image unilaterally implemented a change which only materially affected 1 employee -  an elected member of CBWU’s Bargaining Committee.”

In its statement announcing the complaints, the union wrote, “CBWU members have done their utmost to show through our actions that the intention behind organizing was to support each other and to continue bringing the highest level of professional care to the work of our creators,” adding that Image’s actions “left CBWU with no choice” but to file the charges. According to the NLRB website, no movement has been made in the case since the original filing.

The way forward

So, what happens next? The filing of complaints with the NLRB is unlikely to have lessened the tension felt between CBWU and Image Comics, but the unionization of Image staff isn’t something that can be undone; the template has now been laid out for other publishers to follow suit, as has been demonstrated by Seven Seas Entertainment workers. At a time when labor efforts in the entertainment media is literally headline news, it seems unthinkable to imagine that others aren’t going to want to follow suit, so the question becomes, instead of “what’s next,” perhaps “who’s next?”

Popverse will continue to track this story as it grows.

Last December, Oni Press named a new president and publisher as Hunter Gorinson stepped into the role in the latest change for the company’s that’s had a particularly eventful 2022.

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Graeme McMillan avatar
Graeme McMillan: Popverse Editor Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.
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