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Film And TV Production Assistants Are Unionizing

Above photo: IATSE members join the picket line outside Warner Bros. Studios on September 6, 2023 in Burbank, California. David Livingston/Getty Images.

And they are ready to fight.

Production Assistants United is a new group hoping to unionize production assistants in the Film and Television industry. Could we see Hollywood labor struggles intensify further in the near future?

Editor’s note (11/14/23): This interview was recorded on Nov. 2, before SAG-AFTRA reached a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on Nov. 9.

We won’t grasp all the repercussions of 2023’s ‘Hot Labor Summer’ for years to come, but one place where the effects are already being noted is Hollywood. Building on the momentum of the newly-chartered IATSE Local 111, which represents thousands of commercial production workers across the country, production assistants in the Film and TV sector are coming together to fight back against exploitative working conditions in the industry. The Real News speaks with organizers from Production Assistants United to understand the conditions faced by production workers in Film and TV, and how the unionization of these PAs could reshape the politics of Hollywood labor.

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.


Mel Buer: This year has been a banner year for workers in Hollywood’s entertainment industry. Over the summer, the WGA went on strike and won significant gains in their contract and SAG AFTRA is in the midst of tough negotiations. As their strike continues into yet another month, IATSE and Teamsters are working diligently to prepare for their own contract negotiations in 2024 with much of their membership expressing a serious need for vast improvements in their own contracts.

Actions such as these have been a shot in the arm for Hollywood labor and have dominated media coverage of an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of workers. While these high profile actions do much to expose the inequity and often harrowing working conditions that many workers in Hollywood endure, there are other groups within Hollywood that have felt the exploitation of the industry most acutely and are coming together to do something about it. Just this summer, after over a year of dedicated organizing, commercial production workers won big by what is today? Just this summer. After over a year of dedicated organizing commercial production workers won big by chartering a new local with IE, bringing thousands of previously underrepresented or unrepresented workers across the country into the fold. Commercial production workers only represent a fraction of the production workers who work in the entertainment industry, however, and that’s where production assistant commercial production workers only represent a fraction of the production workers who work in the entertainment industry.

That’s where production assistance United comes in with me today to discuss how PAs United is working to organize production workers in the film and television sector are Camille, Ethan, and Sam, who are the group of organizers who started Production Assistance United, which is a movement to unionize production assistance and support staff in film and television. As an editor’s note, some of the workers today have chosen to use pseudonyms to protect their identities.

Okay, let’s get into it. First question for many of my listeners, the film industry can kind of be a bit of an enigma. Everyday folks watch movies, tune in to see their favorite shows, but may not understand exactly how these shows get made or how many workers actually have hand in creating ’em. I previously worked on an article over the summer on solidarity across the entertainment industry, and there is a bit of a brief conversation about what it means to be an above the line or below the line worker, but I’m more interested on your sector, the production workers. Can you kind of let folks know how these productions tend to work and where you as the production workers fit into that equation?

Speaker 3: Well, I guess I’ll kick it off. Film production and television production, it’s not, at least for us, for below the line production workers and production being a very broad term because we represent, our organization specifically represents PAs from every department. So whether that’s the actual production department, the ad department, art camera, SFX, any of the tens of specifications that we have, all of the workers who work in those day-to-Day businesses of creating film and TV work, extremely long hours, minimum of 12 hours a day. We are actually all, when you ask, when you get a job offer, one of the first conversations you’ll have is like, what’s the rate for 12 hours? Because that is the minimum. You’ll work often specifically for PAs will work far more than that. It’s 16 hours a day is I would say average. It can go up to 18, sometimes 20, and while pretty much every other worker on set or in the production office has a union that they can rely on that gets them better pay, health coverages, benefits, retirement packages, all of that, PAs don’t get any of that. We’re most often paid minimum wage or barely above it. We don’t have anyone to turn to if there’s workplace abuses and frequently we’re left kind of out in the cold without any of those protections.

Speaker 1: So for the audience to kind of understand, production assistants are often looked at as the sort of entry level position into working on a set. It’s my understanding that a lot of these workers will then go on to hopefully become producers or move into various other departments, but that isn’t always the case, right? There are production assistants who make that sort of their career. Right. Camille, would you say that’s kind of a good understanding of what that is and how that works?

Speaker 4: Yes. So being a production assistant is definitely seen as the entry level position, and it’s an entry level position for pretty much any position on set. Like most people who are working on set in any department are probably going to be starting off as a production assistant at some point. And many departments also like costumes, art, et cetera, also have their own production assistant. So you might start off on set. Then you end up being a production assistant for costumes, and then you actually get into the costumes union. So in terms of being entry level, yes, we do have people who also go on to be producers and directors, all the positions, people always say on set be nice to the production assistants. So not everyone listens, but be nice to the production assistants because they may be your boss someday. However, the barrier with that is definitely being able to survive long enough as a production assistant in order to actually advance. If you want to join, say the DGA and be an ad, that means you have to have 600 days under your belt on a union set. That’s not necessarily easy to get. A lot of people burn out before they’re ever able to get up to that level, and there are many people who never even joined the industry in the first place just because even that entry level, the barrier is so hard to both get into being a set PA and then get out of a set PA that some people don’t even try.

Mel Buer: Ethan. So the film and television industry, as you guys have already mentioned, is historically a very heavily unionized industry, WGA SAG aftra, DGA ii, Teamsters, IBEW. Many other unions have participated in the production process over the last a hundred or so years. Why do you think it is that production workers haven’t been included in this union process? Do you think this is just a gap to be addressed or do you think this is something that has been deliberate? What do you think? What do you think?

Speaker 5: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of unique difficulties for production assistance specifically. A lot of people end up going into other departments as a production assistant, so you might stay as a production assistant for three to five years, and then you end up in a different department entirely. So it’s one of those things that you have to organize yourself. So I think it’s an inevitable thing. If we weren’t doing it, it would happen eventually, but you have to organize your own self. Unfortunately, nobody’s going to do it for you. So I think that’s part of the reason why it’s taken a little bit of time. I’m very confident in our movement. But yeah, I mean I think there’s also sort of a stigma for PAs that they might not deserve a union because they are,

Speaker 1: Which is obviously bull, right? Everyone deserves a union, but it

Speaker 5: Yeah, exactly. It’s of my that you can argue a PA is skilled or unskilled all day, and I disagree with the idea of even arguing with that because it doesn’t matter. All workers deserve union representation in my opinion. So that argument is flawed even to talk about it.

Mel Buer: Well, I can imagine that because this position is viewed as an entry level air quotes for the listeners entry level position, but you ended up staying in the job for five to six years and you may get into another union. So why would you need to be unquote unionized? Why would you need to have that space if the idea is to just start somewhere and move somewhere else that has union representation? And I can see that many folks would make that argument. Again, that argument is bull because you do spend five, six years, seven years, or shorter or longer without union representation and working on union sets is my understanding. There’s already a mechanism in place for you to be able to benefit from the sort of things that union contracts allow for and restricting those sort of workplace abuses if you get the chance. So I think this is from my own personal opinion, this is a great thing to see from where I’m sitting. Right.I became aware of your organizing when I came across your Instagram page last summer, last couple of months. Ethan, I think you and I met at a I OS E event halfway through the WGA strike, and you’ve opened your DMS for anonymous tipster to share what their experience has been working on sets enduring. The sort of exploitation that comes with unfortunately comes with this kind of job. I got to tell you, some of those stories are pretty horrifying. Some of the things that production assistants have to endure in order to maintain standing in the industry or even just a paycheck sucks. It sucks.

They really do offer a clue into how you as production workers are often exploited by these folks, the people who sign your paychecks or heads of other departments or actors or whoever else, producers and so on. Now you can go into as much or as little detail as you like, but I do think that it’s kind of important for our listeners to understand the working conditions that you’re laboring under and to speak to what these working conditions are. We don’t have to bring up specific stories. I understand how this industry works from where I’ve been sitting, and it’s one of the reasons why you’re using pseudonyms is because sometimes this conversation can be dangerous for future career prospects. But you’ve been conducting a sort of pseudo survey by allowing individuals to send in anonymous tips about what their working conditions are. So could you kind of speak to what sort of patterns are you seeing from, and any of you three, Sam or Camille or Ethan, you can kind of talk about this. What are the kind of patterns that you’re seeing in terms of the working conditions themselves that you feel organizing this union can help improve or stop outright? What are the things that you think are important for our listeners to understand?

Speaker 4: I would say that something that’s important to understand, and you see it reverberated through the stories of a lot of the people who are sending in stories to us, is essentially that for us, unionization, there’s a very specific financial motive for us not to be unionized. Films and television, they save a lot of budget on not having us as protected workers. So you’ll see one of the stories that’s told over and over from a lot of people is since we work such extensive hours and they’re okay with us working extensive hours because we don’t have meal penalties the way that other people do, and we don’t get the same sort of lush, we don’t have any sort of turnaround time either. Other unions do. So that means there’s not a required period of time for us ending work to the time we come back to work.

So you’ll see a common narrative in a lot of the stories that people send into us. It’s just that they’re tired. There’s a lot of stories of people being like, oh, I am tired. I work like 16, 17 hours. I almost fell asleep on the road. I almost got into an accident. I did get into an accident. I have one coworker from a while ago who actually, she got a concussion on the way into work, and that goes into the entire culture of all of us working long hours. So she got into a concussion when she was in a van that was driven by one of our teamsters obviously. But then when she comes into work, she still has a concussion. She’s feeling the effects of the concussion, but she feels like she can’t go home because of all of the pressures that are put on to us.

They save money by also understaffing us as well. And because we don’t have a union, we can’t say that we have minimum staffing guidelines. And that’s another reason that she was afraid to go home is because we also just didn’t have enough staff because they didn’t want to pay us for more staff. So a lot of the stories, it’s the results of people essentially cutting corners on the budget and trying to save money. But when you cut those corners and you try to save that money, it always ends up falling on the backs of the PAs.

Mel Buer: Right? So for context, meal penalties are penalties, usually financial that are if you’re required to work through a lunch, for example. Am I understanding this correctly?

Speaker 4: Well, a meal penalty is usually used more for how long does it take for you to eat lunch after you started work? Because there’s a required amount of time that you are allowed to go before you eat lunch. And then once you push past that, then you start racking up meal penalties because we’re filming into lunch. Lunch is late, you get more money. However, for production assistance, we don’t get meal penalties. So that’s something that they really like to use for us. So they can call us in as early as they want, so we can be working as many hours. I’ve worked eight hours sometimes more before I’ve actually been able to sit and eat lunch. We don’t get any additional money for that the way that other positions on the crew would. And then in addition to that, we’re not allowed to.

And then in addition to that, they’re also allowed to ask us to work during lunch so they can come up to us or call us over the mic during lunch. And there’s also no repercussions for that.

Speaker 3: We actually do get a single meal penalty. It is $7 and 50 cents, whereas, so if we go 10 minutes past that six hour point where we’re supposed to have a break, we’ll get $7 and 50 cents and that’s it for the day. It doesn’t matter how much further you go after that, how many more half hours past that break point you go? We will get seven 50 IA members will and I believe SAG members and other people who work on set, they will stack and the meal penalties get steeper and more often as time goes on. So say you meal penalty once at lunch and then you go another, you go way into OT and you do another eight hours after lunch. Everybody else will be getting multiple meal penalties from that. We will just get the single one from lunch and we’ll also be the ones staying much longer after everybody else else’s.

Mel Buer: Right. And so note for listeners, just to something else to note for listeners is to drive home this point is that one of the main contentions of IATSE’s last contract cycle and strike authorization was the concept of letting us rest. So production assistance from what I’m hearing, do not have that minimum turnaround time. And I oi almost struck over the same concept of having 12 hours of rest in between time off and starting up again. And this is a big deal because when you are working 18 hour days, you get off work at 3:00 AM you have to drive sometimes a couple of hours perhaps to get home. That’s a dangerous thing. And then you have to get back up in the morning at 5:00 AM and start work again. This is a big deal for workers across this industry is what I’ve come to learn. And it’s unfortunately not a surprise that PAs are experiencing such the effects of this attempt to try and cut budgets and keep shooting schedules shorter in order to save money.

On the subject of your question though, of kind of themes that we’ve seen in our informal survey stuff, another just related kind of to rest is a very kind of fun classic PA trope, which is not being allowed to sit on set sitting. I personally have been told by producers who have walked by me sitting that it’s disrespectful that I’m disrespecting the crew, I’m not paying my dues. And that’s a pretty common refrain that we’ve heard. So just in addition to the long days and the meal penalties and the no turnaround time, just being told that you’re literally not allowed to be seen sitting because you don’t look like you’re working hard enough is crazy.

Mel Buer: It reminds me of working in the service industry. I worked in the bar industry for 10, 15 years while I was going through school and even after, prior to really digging into journalism and the whole concept of if you have time to lean, you have time to clean. There’s no downtime, right? Yeah.

Speaker 3: There’s a lot of crossover between the restaurant industry.

Mel Buer: You see a lot of this in just the concept of unskilled work where if you don’t look busy then you’re lazy and you’re wasting the time and the money of the people who pay you, who sign your paychecks, it looks bad to customers or whatever. And obviously that’s bull, obviously that’s not legitimate. The concept of rest at work is really important and it’s certainly something that many folks do organize over and is really important to highlight. So I appreciate that additional sort of conversation about that. Again, it sounds like the working conditions here are not great. And given all of this conversation about what happens on a set and how the PAs fit into this, and also looking at the success of the commercial production workers at the newly formed production Workers Guild, ie one 11, how did you get started? Was this something where you saw their organizing and you were inspired by it and you felt that there was still a gap there that needed to be addressed in terms of organizing in the film and television sector? Or was this something else that you felt you needed to address?

Speaker 5: Yeah, I think I can answer that. I think all of us individually have been interested in unionizing production assistance for years. I mean, me personally, years, I’m pretty sure everybody years with Stand with Production and the new local for commercials, it really helped kick us off because it just proves, okay, a big argument before that happened was PAs aren’t something that gets unionized and clearly they’ve proved that wrong. So they were also already unionized in animation. But yes, what ended up happening is we all sort of individually, we part of helping that movement stand with production movement and then once they were officially recognized as a union, they kind of brought us all together. So it was actually them that brought us together.

Mel Buer: So tell us a little bit more about your organization, what you’re hoping to accomplish to alleviate some of the worst of the working conditions that you’re forced to leave or under on set. Do you have a sense of how big your pledged membership is or who shows up to your working events? Give us a better understanding of how it’s been going so far.

Speaker 3: I mean, getting numbers is actually kind of our biggest priority right now, getting an idea because there’s never been a real census of how many production assistants there are working in this country. So one of our big things that we’re focusing on right now is outreach and doing things like hosting town halls, getting people involved, getting people to talk to their friends about us and sign our petition, put their name down in interest so we can get an idea of how many of us there are, where everybody is, what departments everyone works in eventually, what studios they tend to work at that sort of deal.

Speaker 4: We think it’s probably in the realm of thousands when you actually take all the positions production assistants work in and you move across the country and all the productions we have going on. But yeah, one of the difficulties with that is also how transient our specific position is. You can kind of just jump in and out of being a set. A lot of people leave the industry or they go into other unions. So that’s why we’re really trying to focus on outreach and making people know that we are here and we are trying to unionize.

Mel Buer: Have you received any positive response, say from example I as they’ve chartered their new local, have you heard anything from any of the working organizers with that organization or are you thinking that perhaps you would like to just create your own independent union to address these problems? Any response?

Speaker 5: Yeah, so the way that we are going about it is sort of with the understanding that it’s not us, the three of us to make those types of decisions. We’re just here to organize and get as many numbers as possible and then it’s going to be the members who will decide how we want it to look like. But yes, all those things that you just said are open and are options for us, ia, our own union, some other umbrella union. Any of those would be great. We really want to just see people, the most people possible unionized.

Mel Buer: That’s amazing. I think that’s great. I think it seems to me from my perspective, looking into this industry that really was previously pretty opaque to me as a consumer, the TV show shows up on the TV and I dunno how this gets made, and it seems like movie magic, but you scratch away the pain a little bit and you go, holy crap, there’s a lot going on here and there’s a lot of exploitation that’s happening. And there have been waves in the last couple of years of really dedicated organizing across unions in the entertainment industry, in the film and TV industry to try and really push back against some of that unchecked exploitation that the studios have dumped on everyone’s heads, whether that’s the contract negotiations like WGA or seeing these really important new locals getting chartered or way out on the side of the scope is reality TV actors trying to organize or things of that nature. And I think really most notably what we’re seeing is really dedicated, really intense organizing from below the line workers such as yourselves that really bear the brunt of the gnarly things that happen on set. And I think PAs United really fits right into that in a big way. How do you feel about that? Do you agree? Do you think that’s kind of where you feel you’re sitting in terms of the organizing that you’re doing?

Speaker 4: Yeah, I believe that we all think that organizing production assistance is sort of fundamental as we’re moving forward and sort of the greater labor movement going on. I feel like when you look into any sort of the media and press, especially surrounding the striking actors and the striking writers or even the potential strike with I Osse that almost happened a couple years back. You read through those things and all of those exploitations are very real and very clear. However, production assistance are always kind of just left completely out of the article or if we’re referred to it all as usually by a sentence. And when you take that and it’s the way that people get into this industry, it is the way that we’re really supposed to be building ourselves up, especially when you take into account the entire diversity thing of Hollywood as well.

When you make an entry level position really hard to get into and really hard to stay in, it acts as its own sort of filter. And when you have that filter there, then it impacts the rest of the industry. So if we’re not being supportive of our workers and inclusive at the very, very bottom of our industry, how are we supposed to change the industry as a whole? And also since we are the storytellers of the country and we push that out into the rest of the world, it’s even more important to make sure that everyone is included and paid well and feels like they’re in a secure place.

Mel Buer: Absolutely. Final question here. What can folks outside of Hollywood or even within Los Angeles and ingratiated with the entertainment industry, with film and television, what can folks do to support your organizing efforts? How can we help make this goal of organizing film and television production assistance, production workers a reality for you? What can we do?

Speaker 5: I’ll answer that one. I think that, so again, the whole goal is just to get our numbers up. So that’s always going to be the baseline goal. So basically what that means for you, the listener, is to go ahead and tell your friends. If you know anybody who’s in the film industry, most people in the film industry know production assistant. So even if they’re not a production assistant themselves, go ahead and let ’em know. And then also just support unions in general is always a great, and then, yeah, go ahead and follow our page because that helps too, just for people to see that we have a good following. So it’s production assistants United on Instagram, and then you can also go to our website, PAs We will have fundraising in the future, not as today, but definitely follow the page for updates on that.

Mel Buer: Fantastic. That’s all the time we have today. Thanks again for joining us, you three, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me about this, the open invite to come back on the podcast at any time, to talk about your organizing efforts, to give us updates on how things are going, if major things start moving later on down the road and you want to use us on our platform, we are here for you and we absolutely respect and want to see this a success. Let’s do it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

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