The International Documentary Association has voluntarily recognized the union organized by its employees, both the IDA and the union announced today. IDA leaders and workers both say they’re hopeful this marks a positive step forward as the embattled organization begins to rebuild after months of strife. One of the first opportunities will be in how management and the union work together to iron out a contract and continue badly needed hiring — the IDA has lost nearly 50 percent of its workforce since December.
“This is a historic day for the IDA workers who worked tirelessly to get a union at our organization,” Hansen Bursic, an organizing committee member of the union, the Documentary Workers United, said in a statement. “We are excited to get to work to accomplish the goals laid out in our mission statement and fight for a contract that benefits staff.”
In his own statement, IDA Executive Director Rick Pérez said the union marked “a positive step forward that will help forge a new direction for the organization and its staff.”
“The IDA is committed to working with the union on next steps that include the collective bargaining process, further articulating our respective roles and responsibilities, and establishing processes that enable us to strengthen the IDA, grow our shared vision for a more equitable and inclusive documentary community and fulfill the organization’s essential obligations to the field,” Pérez said.
The union recognition comes as extraordinary tension remains within IDA and in the tight-knit documentary community over recent events at the 40-year-old nonprofit. Most recently, it was a public back-and-forth over exactly how the union would be recognized. Dissatisfied by what they saw as IDA leaders dragging their feet on the question, workers filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board to trigger a structured process to work out all the details last month.
While IDA leaders publicly backed the union, workers fought for a complete agreement by management to the points outlined in their mission statement and the specific positions that would be included in the bargaining unit. With this voluntary recognition, they achieved that, and an election is no longer necessary.
Four senior staffers left en masse in January after an investigation into their complaint against Pérez was met with no action by the board, aside from implementing communications training for Pérez. Among their concerns: What they described Pérez’s top-down, diminishing management style, and moves by Pérez and the board that they said undermined IDA’s earlier articulated commitments to equity. A parade of other staff departures followed in subsequent months.
The organization has started to rebuild its ranks. Last month, IDA announced three new hires: Keisha Knight (director of IDA funds and enterprise program), Abby Sun (director of artist programs), and Louise Rosen, a senior consultant “tasked with reviewing operations, programs, and planning in collaboration with current and incoming staff.”
Communications from everyone have focused on ideals of equity and shaping the IDA to best serve the community. They’re concepts that workers, IDA leaders, and members of the field in theory all agree on, but there will no doubt continue to be conversations about how to best achieve those goals and what exactly that looks like.
Back when the workers first announced they had organized on March 14, they released a mission statement that outlined goals, including that leaders should “prioritize staff concerns and set reasonable timelines/benchmarks for the organization, over fixing IDA’s public image,” “involvement of relevant staff members in crucial departmental decisions,” and “protection of the staff’s executive authority over their organizational duties as outlined in their job descriptions.”
The goals speak to concerns raised by current and former staffers about how the IDA under Pérez’ and the board’s leadership had taken on a “top-down” approach. Achieving equity by rejecting such an approach in the nonfiction field was the focus of a keynote address delivered last week by Poh Si Teng, one of the four senior IDA staffers who left after conflict with Pérez earlier this year.
“It’s difficult to imagine a hierarchical structure, one that lacks collaboration contributing effectively to the public good. Top-down structures create too many gaps in our knowledge, and makes it very difficult for the organization to serve our documentary field,” Teng said.
Prior to the departure of Teng and her colleagues, there were internal conflicts over Pérez’s approach to a progressive fundraising plan that had been previously announced, and Pérez’s decision to add a board member’s film to the IDA Documentary Screening Series after it was passed over by a programming committee.
The confusion and chaos surrounding the crisis at the IDA over the last few months has led to vocal reaction from the documentary community. Earlier this week, members of the field penned an open letter offering their support to Pérez, the board, and the union, while decrying “innuendo and suspicion” about the executive director.
It’s troubling that Pérez, the first person of color to permanently hold that post at the IDA, is still being assumed guilty, wrote the group, which includes the prominent former Sundance programmer Bird Runningwater; filmmakers Anayansi Prado, Dawn Valadez, and Jim LeBrecht; and former IDA employees Ranell Shubert and Toni Achebe Bell. They requested that the IDA hold an open town hall meeting, as previous “clarifying conversations” hosted by the organization were not open to all who wanted to attend.
One of the signatories, filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes, told IndieWire he counts Pérez as a mentor. He said he hopes the field is able to move past what he considers character assassination of Pérez so IDA can start to heal. He’s hopeful that the union will offer a structured way for the organization to rebuild.
“It all created a cloud of suspicion that is very toxic for all of us,” he said. “I’m very excited about what Rick can do at the IDA. I’ve seen him mentor filmmakers, I’ve seen his advocacy, and he loves cinema. That’s what we need, from my point of view, fighting for change in this organization and pushing it forward.”