Members of Documentary Workers United (all images courtesy Documentary Workers United)

On March 14, workers at the International Documentary Association (IDA) announced their intent to unionize with the Communications Workers of America Local 9003. The decision came six months after a mass exodus of staff members — most of whom are women or nonbinary — and ongoing controversies surrounding IDA leadership. Documentary Workers United (DWU) is the first union of its kind in the United States, representing 10 staff members, including coordinators, specialists, officers, associates, and non-senior managers. 

Despite a multicultural board of directors, IDA staff members have experienced a lack of clear communication, insufficient rehiring, and repeated pushback from executive director Rick Pérez. The organization voluntarily recognized the staff’s decision to unionize in March but refused to sign legally binding documents. A tenuous back and forth, including a notice from a union-busting law firm, finally led to their signing an agreement on April 5. (Hyperallergic reached out to Pérez for comment but has not received one.)

We spoke with two members of DWU’s organizing committee, Hansen Bursic and Bedatri D. Choudhury, on unionizing an entirely remote staff and its implications for the documentary industry. Bursic serves as IDA’s communications coordinator and Choudhury is managing editor of Documentary magazine (as well as a Hyperallergic contributor). This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Hyperallergic: What were the specific conditions that led you to unionize?

Hansen Bursic: This all started after the resignations. In group meetings, IDA leadership avoided answering our questions on job security and pressured us to maintain the same level of work under the duress of ongoing controversy and major staff departures. We lost four department heads, and three months of meetings brought almost no progress on our core concerns. We tried working from the inside, but it wasn’t working. Leadership told us to redirect concerns from community members upward, discouraging us from speaking openly. 

We eventually decided to hold staff meetings outside of work. By then, we hemorrhaged almost 50 percent of staff, which made our work environment more challenging. People came into work with anxiety every day, which tremendously impacted people’s mental health. We all work remotely, so the fact that we still virtually experienced this culture of fear really spoke to our deep-seated concern. Our union vote was unanimous.

H: What do you make of the media coverage that prioritizes leadership’s controversies over worker testimonies?

Bedatri Choudhury: I started to wonder why I was learning about my organization through a news report, rather than internal communication. Editorially and personally, that shows a complete breakdown of trust between leadership and staff. So much of the conversation around our union has been tied to those who left, but very few people talk to existing staff.

HB: We are not just IDA members; many of us are filmmakers, programmers, and journalists engaged in the documentary community. When we ask for funding, make connections, and attend networking events, everything follows us — it’s that tightly knit. Suddenly we couldn’t enter another space and feel safe talking about our own projects and experiences. We had to be careful, because people think we are trying to campaign against the board and Pérez, which is not our intention. We are not unionizing to make them look bad.

H: When we first spoke, you were having difficulty getting voluntary recognition from leadership, but that changed recently. Can you detail how negotiations have gone thus far?

HB: When we requested voluntary recognition, we set timelines and granted two extensions — not even to respond to our demands, just to confirm their support. We got an email saying they recognized an “appropriate” unit, which is different. We asked for signed confirmation of our specific membership, because they could theoretically litigate us into smaller units. They then brought in legal counsel through Seyfarth-Shaw, a notoriously anti-union law firm that worked against César Chavez and the United Farm Workers. This was a red flag, so we filed and set a legal timeline they had no choice but to follow. 

Of course they didn’t like our publicizing of Seyfarth-Shaw’s involvement, which led to public scrutiny. Leadership still refuses to create any substantial timelines for our concerns. We’ve also repeatedly asked for concrete plans to address our recently decertified handbook, which ensured Diversity Equity and Inclusion protections for nonwhite and LGBTQ staff. 

BC: The cancer is being lauded for the cure. IDA wants to be praised for recognizing a union with “historic speed,” as the board said in a statement, but we need to talk about the warped power dynamics within the nonprofit model itself. Boards should not have this much power to make decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of staff members. I’m not doubting anyone’s credibility, but at the end of the day, they are not staff. They do not understand our experience as workers.

H: What are you hoping will come out of negotiations and how do you think the union’s presence will affect IDA moving forward?

BC: It would be undue pressure to assume we can solve all of IDA’s problems. What we can do is safeguard our positions, voice our demands, and move power back to the staff, because we are the ones running this. We rarely have any say in hiring, which needs to change. We also need to preserve an institutional memory to commemorate contributions that good, hard-working people have made to this organization. 

HB: In addition to workplace protections, we want a voice in an organization that is supposed to be community-driven. We are not trying to ruin anyone’s reputation; unionizing was a necessity within a situation brought on by management. Whatever they do to improve our condition is welcome. 

Members of Documentary Workers United stand together

H: What does it mean for documentary filmmakers to have a union, particularly queer and nonwhite artists who tell stories on marginalization?

BC: Well, this is not a typical filmmakers’ union. It’s a worker’s union, which visibilizes the unseen labor behind the film — graphic design, communications, editorial, fiscal sponsorship, grant-making, and so on. This industry is structured in a way that we only see directors, producers, and cinematographers. This is a union that holds the larger field accountable, not just one production. We are fighting for people’s rights and their stories to be told, while questioning how the industry treats its workers.

HB: Unionizing is a huge step forward in the nonprofit-industrial complex, where many people join an organization because they care about its advocacy. You become a very vulnerable employee, because management can put you in situations where you are pressured into doing unpaid work, taking pay cuts, and doing things you wouldn’t ordinarily do because you care about the mission. That is a more subtle form of exploitation that is actually more nefarious for a progressive organization. 

We’ve gotten pressure from established filmmakers behind the scenes. Maybe they support us publicly, but there is resistance because they think the IDA is the most valuable organization to their work. They value an organization as an idea rather than the real people who have made the organization what it is today. We acted in accordance with longtime labor organizers in a calculated move to ensure our safety. It wasn’t malicious, and we did not make the decision lightly. All in all, we got results.

Editor’s Note, 6/3/2022, 7:18pm EDT: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the racial makeup of the IDA board of directors. This has been corrected.

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Billie Anania

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.