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Our Flag Means Union

Comics, FYI
Our Flag Means Union
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #40 • View online
The United Workers of Seven Seas is preparing to be the first union in the western manga industry. (And a brief update on what’s going on with the CBWU, too.)

On Monday, employees of manga publisher Seven Seas Entertainment announced the formation of United Workers of Seven Seas, which – if the vote goes the group’s way – stands to become the first union in the American manga industry.
The publisher, which boasts on its website that it releases upwards of 500 books a year, is accused of leaving its workers “overworked [and] underpaid,” according to the introductory statement from the group. Additionally, workers at the company receive no job benefits, and no paid days off (including federal holidays). 
According to information from NPD BookScan, Seven Seas was the fifth largest manga publisher in the North American book market last year, with roughly 1,590,000 copies sold during 2021 for an estimated value of around $23 million. That’s a significant increase over the previous year’s performance, where the company sold just under 700,000 copies – and therein lies part of the problem. 
“The company has grown exponentially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But with rapid growth comes growing pains, and we, the workers of Seven Seas, have been shouldering much of that pain,” the group writes in its statement. “We are dedicated to producing a broad range of high-quality content for our readers, but the only way we can do that is if employees are taken care of.”
The goals of UW7S are, on the face of it, remarkably straightforward, and split into the following self-descriptive categories: healthcare, paid leave, & pension benefits; paid time off, vacation, & holiday breaks; increased wages & transparent increase structure; reasonable workloads, no more crunch; secure employment status for all; protections & benefits for freelancers; clearly defined job roles & organization chart; training materials & onboarding; a robust scheduling & admin department; management training for all managers & supervisors; an end to exclusivity & anti-freelance contracts; anti-harassment/discrimination policies & process for submitting grievances; bonuses & vendor gifts; reimbursement for costs; inter-department communication; and increase staff for overburdened departments. 
Together, they paint a picture of a company that clearly takes advantage of its employees without offering them much in return. More than once, in reading the group’s website, it struck me that Seven Seas essentially treats its employees as freelancers while simultaneously imposing restrictions on their ability to work elsewhere or control their own schedule; it’s the worst of both worlds. 
I reached out to UW7S with some questions; the group responded under the condition of anonymity, to protect the identity of the group’s organizers.
Overall, the stated goals of the group make Seven Seas sound like a supremely disorganized company: there’s mention of missed deadlines, a need for management to be trained to supervise successfully, a lack of transparency between departments, overwork and crunch work on deadlines, new hires being “set up to fail,” and job creep… and then there’s also being underpaid, on top of all of that, and receiving no benefits. I have to ask: is the job as unrewarding as it sounds from all of this?
There are aspects we love about working at Seven Seas Entertainment. If that were not the case, and if we did not believe the company is worth fighting to improve, then United Workers of Seven Seas would not exist.
However, as publishing and other entertainment industries have shown time and time again, it is all too easy to take advantage of passion. The employees and freelancers at Seven Seas Entertainment are all passionate, committed, and talented individuals who are experts in their fields. But when we started comparing notes, we realized overwork and burnout were not just individual problems; large workloads, poor communication, and lack of structure are systemic patterns throughout the company.
Our goal is to collaborate with the leadership of Seven Seas Entertainment to make the company rewarding to work at. Our vision is to make sure everyone is fully supported and taken care of so we can fully harness our passion and talent to create quality work while combating some of the more unfortunate aspects of our industry.
It feels as if Seven Seas is basically trying to have everyone work as a permalancer but blocking the one plus that comes from that position, which is that you have the opportunity to work elsewhere at the same time. Am I misunderstanding the situation?
This is more or less the situation. That is why job benefits for full-time employees and better protections for freelancers are a big part of our union goals. We believe Seven Seas Entertainment  is capable of giving its workers the network of support they deserve. We are all dedicated to the work we do, and United Workers of Seven Seas (UW7S) believes people with proper support are more productive and able to produce higher-quality output – a.k.a. better books!
Are full-time employees treated as freelancers, contract workers, or permanent staff? 
The workers at Seven Seas Entertainment are a mix of in-house contract workers and US W-2 staff, plus a large stable of freelancers who work essentially on a contract basis. 
Full-time, salaried W-2 staff located in the US receive no benefits, except for a couple of rare exceptions. Since Seven Seas Entertainment’s workers are situated globally, some of the full-time, salaried staff outside the US are hired as contract workers. This is a common business practice for companies in the US, but one which prevents the granting of benefits.
From what the full-time, salaried, US-based employees who make up United Workers of Seven Seas have determined, certain freelancers work without formal contracts and all freelancers lack transparent rate structures. 
UW7S wants to see everyone treated as equally as possible, though we acknowledge there are certain legal realities which must be accepted. However, no one is exempt from demands such as increased rates, greater transparency, and improvements to workflow and communications.
“Clearly defined job roles” is one of the goals of the group; can you describe the kind of job creep that goes on at the company, and perhaps give me an idea of how often this happens?
In short, Seven Seas Entertainment has grown explosively in the past couple of years, and processes that worked (and may have been necessary when you could count the number of employees on one hand) have not scaled gracefully. 
We firmly believe there is no ill intent, but for the company to sustain its growth, these organizational issues need to be addressed now. If workers can focus on one specific job instead of hopping from role to role, managers primarily focus on management, and lines of communication and reporting are clear, then company efficiency will improve overall, employee stress will diminish, and we will be able to release better products for our readers.
I assume the goals stated in your website have been discussed with Seven Seas management before now. What was the response in those discussions? There’s mention on the website of being told that benefits are “imminent” — how long has that been the company position?
Benefits have been “imminent” for more than three years now, with some new hires being told benefits are on the way and others told not to expect any sort of insurance or retirement coverage. By negotiating benefits through collective bargaining, United Workers of Seven Seas will be able to ensure they are implemented within a defined timeframe. Although United Workers of Seven Seas is a US-based union and there are legal obstacles to what we can achieve for our freelancers and our staff outside the United States, we will advocate as much as we can on their behalf as well.
Where did the impulse to unionize come from? Did Image Comics’ workers union play a part in your thinking?
We were inspired by the large push that has been happening across the entertainment industry by unions such as Vodeo Workers United, Comic Book Workers United, the Animation Guild’s New Deal for Animation, United Paizo Workers, and especially following the Starbucks, Amazon Labor, and Raven Software unionization efforts. We stand in solidarity with all workers and hope our unionization efforts can inspire others across the country to organize their own places of work in turn! A rising tide lifts all boats.
What has your response been to social media reactions to your formation? 
The outpouring of support, interest, positive messages, and hilarious memes from the industry as well as consumers and fans has been amazing and heartening. Not just manga but all of publishing is long overdue for recognition of the hard work put in by people behind the scenes, especially while facing down the industry-wide challenges of a global pandemic. We did not expect such an overwhelmingly positive response in the first 24 hours, but seeing our industry colleagues and readers alike speak out in solidarity with us has been heartwarming and we’re so grateful for everyone’s support.
Do you have a timeline in mind for moving forward?
Yes, but we can’t share details just yet. Keep an eye on the United Workers of Seven Seas website and Twitter for updates about our progress!
How can people support your union efforts?
Right now, we are only asking for shows of solidarity via social media. Please retweet our mission statement, use one of our adorable mascots as your icon or Twitter banner, or use our hashtags #MakingWaves, #IsekaiIsPossible, and #OurFlagMeansUnion. For more information, you can visit the How You Can Support Us page on the UW7S website.
We are not calling for boycotts – please continue buying manga from Seven Seas Entertainment as you normally would!
We want to thank everyone who has reached out both privately and publicly to show support and solidarity as we push for long overdue changes in manga publishing.
When thinking about the United Workers of Seven Seas, you would be forgiven for wondering whatever happened to Comic Book Workers United, the collective of Image Comics employees that won its election to be certified at the beginning of this year, becoming the first union in the comics industry as a whole? Things have been quiet on that front but things continue to progress, albeit slowly.
“CBWU is currently awaiting bargaining negotiations,” the union updated me via email at the start of this month. “CBWU has requested that we begin our contract negotiations and is currently waiting on Image.”
From what I understand, things have progressed since that email, with both parties now in communication and moving towards finally getting negotiations underway.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Graeme McMillan

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