EXCLUSIVE: Dwindling staff at the International Documentary Association are pursuing plans to unionize, Deadline has learned.
The 11 remaining full-time staff members below the level of senior manager voted unanimously to organize as the Documentary Workers United, under Communications Workers of America local 9003. They sent a statement to IDA executive director Rick Pérez on Monday morning informing him of the decision, and gave him 24 hours to grant “voluntary recognition” of the union.
The unionization push “comes as staff face unprecedented challenges at the organization,” the IDA staffers wrote in a release obtained by Deadline. “Since December 2021, nearly 50% of staff has left the organization, many in protest to the fact that numerous concerns raised by staff remain unaddressed.”
As Deadline has reported, four senior managers quit the IDA in early January after filing a complaint against Pérez accusing him of regularly engaging in abusive conduct. The complaint also criticized actions taken by the IDA board, which the managers said undermined the nonprofit’s stated mission to support diversity, equity and inclusion in the documentary field. The IDA has continued to shed staff in recent weeks: Trent Nakamura, awards campaign and strategic partnerships manager, resigned March 8, and Susan Q. Yin, whose responsibilities included managing communications, design and digital projects, quit March 3.
Cassidy Dimon, associate director of public programs and events, resigned last month, saying “the current atmosphere at the organization, that I and many other staff members experienced as hostile and intimidating, made it untenable for me to stay.”
The unionization effort is meant to stem the tide of departures, the remaining staffers indicated in their press release.
“We are hopeful that there won’t be any organizational resistance to this initiative” to unionize, the release said, attributing the quote to “a DWU organizer who decided to remain unnamed.” The staffer added, “However, we are prepared to pursue a formal election in accordance with U.S. law if we are met with opposition.”
The DWU drafted a mission statement, which it said it sent to Pérez this morning. It read, in part, “We have reached the conclusion that we need the structure and power of a union to advocate for us in an environment where we feel largely unsupported. To this effect, we—the staff of the International Documentary Association (IDA)—have chosen the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9003 as our voice. We are partnering to create a safe and just workplace, and to negotiate a legally binding contract that addresses the goals we have set forth collectively:
- “Prioritize staff concerns and set reasonable timelines/benchmarks for the organization, over fixing IDA’s public image.
- “Continue to respect the authority of the IDA Employee Handbook.
- “Create a clear process for reporting issues to leadership in good faith, without the fear of repercussions.
- “Create accountability for situations where IDA leadership diminishes current and former staff (foul language, aggressive outbursts, sharing confidential information, etc.) in both private and public settings.”
The mission statement included additional bullet points, among them a call for “a fair and competitive pay scale for all staff members” and “protection of the staff’s executive authority over their organizational duties as outlined in their job descriptions.”
Pérez assumed the top job at the IDA in May 2021, becoming the organization’s first BIPOC and openly gay leader. The board has stood beside him in the midst of the current turmoil; it issued a statement in late January saying it hired an “independent investigator” to look into the allegations from the four senior managers who filed their formal complaint late last year. The board said, “…[T]his investigator concluded that the claims were unsubstantiated.”
The statement from the board also noted, “Rick Pérez has the potential to be a stellar executive director of IDA,” and it suggested the staff departures should not be considered unusual. “It is also important to note that change, at any organization, can be difficult and it’s not uncommon for shifts to occur when new leadership steps in, for any number of reasons.”
The board has attempted to contain reputational damage to the IDA by convening virtual sessions with leading figures in the documentary field to “learn and hold space for deep listening and reflection on IDA from community members as we move forward.” One of those meetings was held last week; another is set for March 21.
Board treasurer Marcia Smith told Deadline earlier this month that the dispute between IDA staff on the one hand and the executive director and the board on the other is not over “substantive policy” issues. But she added, “There are differences on authority and power. And there are differences on proper process and procedure.”
The newly constituted Documentary Workers United cited as inspiration the successful effort to unionize several other workplaces within the creative community, including Jigsaw Productions, the company run by Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. As Deadline reported last year, WGA East organized Jigsaw producers, showrunners, APs and other freelance staff.
“We stand on the shoulders of our unionized colleagues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Film at Lincoln Center, and Jigsaw Productions—among many others—as we embark on this fight for a just workplace,” an unnamed DWU “lead organizer” commented in the IDA staff press release. “We seek solidarity and support from our peers as we work towards a documentary ecosystem that serves the community—including, us, the workers—in the fair and just ways we deserve to be served.”
In moving to join the Communication Workers of America, the IDA staff link up with “one of America’s largest and most diverse unions,” as CWA calls itself. “We work not just in the communications and information industries, but also in the news media, the airlines, broadcast and cable television, public service, higher education and health care, manufacturing, in high tech and more.”
The Documentary Workers United also announced the creation of a number of social media handles for itself, including @IDAWorkersUnion on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, “as well as the hashtag #StandWithIDAWorkers.”
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