Following a change in Phoenix Comicon‘s volunteer policy that now requires potential volunteers to pay a fee to join a nonprofit organization, controversy among the show’s community has erupted. As objections to the new policy rose, particularly as paying the fee is no guarantee one will actually get a volunteer position, one longtime exhibitor was dis-invited from the con.
Phoenix Comicon director Matt Solberg sent an e-mail to staffers on December 27 announcing the new volunteer policy, according to a report in the Arizona Republic. Volunteers for this year’s con must be members of Blue Ribbon Army, a nonprofit fan group. Memberships cost between $20 and $100, depending on the level, and all levels include “Opportunity to accept staff positions for Phoenix Comicon,” although membership does not guarantee a slot. In fact, volunteer positions will become more difficult to land, as Solberg plans to shrink the show’s staff from 1,400 last year to 1,300 this year, and to 950 for future cons.
Solberg said the change was made to ensure that volunteers were actually working and not just getting a free ride. “The system that we’re setting up will be easier for us to manage and track staff formally to prevent those in the past who have arrived with a badge, got the volunteer benefits, and then not actually shown up to complete those tasks associated with their positions,” Solberg told the Republic.
In an e-mail he sent to staff, which was obtained by Bleeding Cool, Solbert noted that the number of volunteers for the 2015 show jumped from 1,700 to 2,200 in the three weeks preceding the show, for no apparent reason, and that one team had 54 staff members who got badges but had no defined responsibilities. Solberg also announced that he had made other changes to the organizational structure of the con, including letting three directors go.
While fans bristled at the notion of being required to pay money in order to volunteer, the practice of using unpaid volunteers for conventions has come under scrutiny in recent months. Last May Jerry Brooks, a former Emerald City Comicon volunteer, filed a class action suit against the former owners of ECCC, claiming that they violated labor laws by using unpaid volunteers as employees. (ReedPOP, which acquired ECCC and ran the 2016 event, did pay its volunteers, as it does at its other cons.) Employment laws vary from state to state, but in Washington, nonprofit organizations may use unpaid labor. The fact that Blue Ribbon Army is a nonprofit and Phoenix Comicon is not may explain why the volunteers were shifted from one organization to another.
Meanwhile, artist Anabel Martinez, herself a former director of Phoenix Comicon and a longtime exhibitor, was banned from this year’s event. Solberg sent her a letter, which Martinez posted to her Facebook page, accusing her of having a “vendetta” against both Solberg and Phoenix Comicon, hosting an unauthorized Phoenix Comicon Facebook page, and posting “negative and harsh comments” about the con on social media since she was let go as director of marketing in 2010 (in the Facebook post, Martinez says she stepped down as director of marketing, and it was a volunteer position). Solberg declined her application for a table and returned her fee. The letter goes on to say “Unauthorized use of another’s table or booth, or attendance through any other group or entity at any future Square Egg Entertainment [the owner of Phoenix Comicon] event without express written approval of Square Egg Entertainment will result in both you and that party having your badges revoked and you will be escorted from the show, with no refund.”