It’s being called the Great Resignation: a high number of people have been quitting their jobs in recent months. It’s a combination of a lot of factors, including a lot of reflection during the stay-at-home orders, the rise in appreciation for workers in fields like retail and fast food, and the difficulty in obtaining stable and reasonably priced childcare. As people leave the workforce or switch careers, many companies have become increasingly desperate for workers. In many places across the US, workers who have stayed sensed an opportunity to demand more from their employers. This has caused coworkers to band together and push for a union for strength in numbers. For instance, there has been much ado about Amazon workers in New York trying to officially establish the first union in the company.
Now, even the manga industry finds itself in the middle of this labor push.
What is a Union?
Chances are that you already have an opinion about unions. Unions are historically tied to politics in America, and just like political views, whether you support unions or not has likely been passed down from your parents. Proponents say that unions lead to better pay, benefits, and worker protection while opponents argue unions stifles businesses with too many high wages, regulations, and bad employees.
Just 18 years after the US was formed, the nation’s first union was created. With their long history, unions have created a lot of modern standards such as no child labor. And, of course, Labor Day was founded in honor of unions.
In a modern union, workers pay dues so that their representatives can better lead and pressure businesses for good pay, benefits, safety standards, and more.
There are a variety of unions out covering a wide range of business and services including retail, teaching, acting, manufacturing, retail and more. Most are affiliated with either the AFL-CIO or the Change to Win Federation. Workers are eligible to join a union if they work in a field represented by one, or they can band together to try to start one. In the US, the independent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) governs union elections and rules over labor practice disputes.
To start a union, the NLRB says:
“If a majority of workers want to form a union, they can select a union in one of two ways: If at least 30% of workers sign cards or a petition saying they want a union, the NLRB will conduct an election. If a majority of those who vote choose the union, the NLRB will certify the union as your representative for collective bargaining. An election is not the only way a union can become your representative. Your employer may voluntarily recognize a union based on evidence — typically signed union-authorization cards — that a majority of employees want it to represent them. Once a union has been certified or recognized, the employer is required to bargain over your terms and conditions of employment with your union representative. Special rules apply in the construction industry.”
If a contract between the union and a company cannot be reached, members can eventually vote to strike.
Currently, about 14 million people in the US are a union member, which represents about 10% of the total workforce.
Membership has been declining since its peak around the 1950s, and most union members today work in the public sector.
In the 1940s, states started pushing for “right-to-work” laws, and the federal government explicitly permitted them with 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act. This prevented certain practices like unions pressuring other businesses from dealing with their employers during a strike as well as allowing companies to express their opinions about unions.
In right-to-work states, workers do not have to be members of a union to be employed at a company. However, since unions negotiate on behalf of all workers, non-union workers due to get much of the union’s benefits but without the fees. Currently, over half of the US are right-to-work states.
United Workers of Seven Seas
On May 23rd, workers at manga/light novel publisher Seven Seas revealed they are attempting to unionize.
The United Workers of Seven Seas (UW7S) are working with Campaign to Organize Digital Employees of the Communications Workers of America union to organize.
This news came on the heels of a studio at Activision-Blizzard announcing its union in conjunction with CODE-CWA.
UW7S’ website outlines its requests for Seven Seas, which includes full-time positions, benefits, training, and scheduling. Publishers Weekly confirmed there has not been an official vote yet, and since Seven Seas isn’t voluntarily acknowledging the union, a case has been submitted to the NLRB for an election. As of this writing, a list of 32 employees supporting UW7S is available on the union’s website, which represents about three-fourths of the full-time staff. So it is likely the vote to organize will succeed, although it could take several months before that happens. Seven Seas has hired Ogletree Deakins to represent them, a law firm widely known for representing companies in anti-union cases and one of the largest who specializes in this field. According to the firm, Ogletree Deakins helps “enlightened employers work to develop a trust relationship with employees that minimize the risk of unionization”.
If an NLRB-approved election goes forward and the vote to organize under UW7S passes, Seven Seas would be the first manga publishing company to unionize in the US. Image Comics became the first US comics company to unionize earlier this year.
The manga localization industry (not to mention the animation industry in Japan) has long been accused of low wages.
Seven Seas states it is “the #1 independently-owned manga publisher in the English-language market”, and like other manga companies, sales have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. Seven Seas’ size combined with its indie nature make it more understandable why employees there versus the other publishers can or want to organize. Again, assuming that UW7S’ numbers are correct and the NLRB finds no illegal practices on behalf of UW7S, it should be a relatively simple and straightforward process to make the union official. However, a big, specialized firm like Ogletree Deakins can complicate the process and cause delays. Their hiring by Seven Seas “disappointed” UW7S but are still hoping Seven Seas won’t enter a legal battle. Seven Seas, however, states the election involves “more members” than the current supporters and they should “learn about their rights” first.
Of course, then the question of what happens next if UW7S becomes official. Union supporters will say a happier workforce will lead to better produced books, maybe avoiding some of the localization issues the company has had with some of its titles. Anti-union advocates will worry about costs of books, fewer releases because of lower profits, delayed production due to strict workhours or strikes, etc.
At the very least, the number of names on UW7S’ website should indicate that a large number of employees are unsatisfied. I’m sure some will say, “Well, they can just find another job!” but the problem with that argument is that either the employees there are left to fill in that void or someone else is going to step into those lackluster conditions.
It may be hard for workers at other manga/light novel publishers to follow in UW7S’ footsteps because of their rivals’ size and global connections, but considering unions in the comics in the US is still very new, I’m sure all other graphic novel publishers are going to be watching closely. Translators, typesetters, editors, and other workers who help bring over Japanese (and Chinese and Korean) comics are going to be very interested in knowing what kind of pay and benefits Seven Seas employees will get in the future, and I’m sure some would be happy to join the Great Resignation and try to get a job at Seven Seas if UW7S can reach some, most, or even all of its target goals. Because not too many people can afford to live off of about $300 per month.