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Production Assistants Doing Union Work

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A reader, who I’ll call Ivan, wrote in about a tricky situation. I’m going to modify some of the details, to keep Ivan’s identity a secret, but the gist is the same–

I’ve been hired as a set dec1 PA on a big feature. I have been asked to do a variety of work that requires some creative input, more typical of a Union work. I’ve actually been put to work as a Buyer using company credit cards to order various props, a Prop-maker making silly gadgets for wacky inventors and other materials, and an Artist, drawing and designing signage for a convention.

While all of this work is very fun, and much preferred to making runs for coffee and lunch, I can’t help but wonder if they are using Set Dec. PA’s for cheap labor. What is the line between Union and non-union work? Is it a common phenomena in the industry- to hire PA’s as extra hands for a limited time? As someone who has aspirations for getting into the Union, should I try to negotiate getting a Union position on the show?

That’s a tricky situation. So, I asked a set decorator friend of mine what you should do.

First of all, is he choosing what they’re buying or are they just working the credit card? If he’s making any of the creative decisions, that’s definitely a buyer position. If he’s just paying bills, that’s a coordinator position. Normally, there’s not a coordinator in set dec but it’s popping up more and more. I believe there’s talk of making that a union position, but it isn’t one yet.

Assuming he’s really a buyer, that’s one hundred percent grievance territory. The set decorator and production should and will get fined if it’s reported. Additionally, the p.a. should get credited those days they’ve worked as a buyer. It’s a difficult place to be in, to be honest. There’s bridge burning involved. But they are taking advantage of their p.a.

There’s really no good move here.

One: He can contact local 44 and ask for advice. From that point forward, it’s likely out of his hands.

Two: He can talk to the set decorator and explain the situation. Then the decorator can choose to reduce the p.a.’s responsibilities or contact the union herself. If he goes this route, he may also want to put a word in with HR, just to hedge bets.

There’s a good chance the decorator will want to let him go after exercising one of these options, but either way, he’s now pretty unfireable. It won’t garner a great recommendation.

Three: He can tell the decorator he knows what’s going down, but he’d really like to continue working with her in this increased capacity; is there a way to work this into a union position on the next gig? Note: the decorator won’t really be able to control this. But maybe they will be able to help down the line.

These situations are what unions are for. At the moment, Ivan is just buying things and drawing, but next week, they might ask him to do something that’s actually dangerous, something he’s not qualified to do safely. That’s when you definitely should say no, and follow one of the above steps.

I know “no good option” is not what Ivan wanted to hear, but sometimes that’s life in the real world. Sorry!

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. The set decoration department, for those who are unaware.
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2 Responses

  1. I hope the PA is VERY CAREFUL with this “advice”.

    First – can the PA even grieve this? I don’t see how that works.

    Second – The Local could grieve the production. The local owes a duty to it’s EXISTING MEMBERS to take the position out though call to the folks IN THE UNION sitting on the bench. Shouldn’t the union make sure the PA is fired from it (PA is non-union and position is unlikely to be a permit position). Then it needs to be filled through the regular process.

    Third – I’d be very interested if the non-permit worker gets days towards their card this way. This would be a HUGE / great way into the union, especially with a friend in management of the production, as the production could bring you on, you then grieve it out after end of production and bingo, union card. I always though you had to either turn the production or be a permit to get days – is this additional way in documented somewhere? Normally during slow periods it’s harder for new folks to get days (which helps limit oversupply in the craft) so being able to claim you were miss-classified after production would be a really good way in especially during slow periods.

    Fourth – Isn’t it EXISTING union members who grieve / raise these issues? They are protected / tend to know the craft positions better than most other folks.

    Note: I have no idea about set dec or the local so mostly am just curious about how it works with this local – especially if you can get in by a claiming missclassification after the fact without going through the union as a permit or turning a production.

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