|Two days after the Academy Awards, as many boldface names still basked in glory, some of their way-behind-the-scenes colleagues testified at a forum in Midtown Manhattan about life in the real world of film and television.|
“We get cursed on in every language in New York City,” said Matthew Ancrum, 49, a production assistant who lives in Bedford Park in the Bronx.
Rafael Diaz, 43, also from the Bronx, recalled a day last year when a woman in Washington Heights was so angry that his television crew was restricting parking in the neighborhood that she “spat in my face.”
In New York City, most workers on film and television crews belong to a union. But the people who testified yesterday at the forum, organized by the City University of New York, are non-unionized workers known as parking production assistants.
Their duties include putting up fliers the day before a film crew comes to a neighborhood, dropping orange parking cones on the street, safeguarding a site before filming begins and shooing drivers away from parking spaces at all hours.
The assistants sometimes work on low-budget shoots, but more often on potential Hollywood blockbusters like “I Am Legend,” a vampire thriller starring Will Smith that is now in production.
It is a hard job, with long hours, sometimes two 12-hour shifts in a row; low pay, typically under $10 an hour; no bathroom breaks; and no health insurance or other benefits, production assistants said during the forum, held at CUNY’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.
During the two-hour hearing, a half-dozen workers — most of them men — and other supporters were among those who spoke. The testimony was intended to underscore their campaign for a union. They said they liked their jobs and, for the most part, liked their bosses. But they contended that their working conditions would improve substantially with a union.
Last year, according to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, more than 250 films and 100 television programs were shot in the five boroughs. The productions contributed at least $5 billion to the city’s economy, and parking production assistants played a small but essential role in that effort.
And “for the record,” said Julianne Cho, assistant commissioner of the city’s film office, “we don’t close down streets. A production may or may not hire parking production assistants to reserve the permitted spaces.”
How do the assistants reserve the spaces? “Well,” she said, “that’s a question for the production assistants.”
For Mr. Ancrum, who has been a production assistant for 15 years and now works on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” it sometimes takes street diplomacy, with a dash of blarney.
“I’ve been cursed in Dominican, Colombian, Italian, people from Paris, Irish, Jewish, black, Cuban — and all because I tell them they can’t park their car here,” he said.
The toughest are the drug dealers.
“I know you’re looking at me all crazy,” said Mr. Ancrum, re-enacting the parking pitch he uses on drug dealers. “But, listen, I’m working production here. They’re going to have police officers here and police tow trucks for the cars that are still here. If you want to argue, that’s fine, but the police commander is going to shut you down, and you ain’t making no money.”
Ted Feng, an organizer with the United Auto Workers who is helping the production assistants in their unionization effort, said about two-thirds of the city’s 300 parking production assistants wanted a union.
But the U.A.W. wants management to recognize the workers as a union through majority signup rather than have them go through the prolonged election process supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. That process can involve many appeals, Mr. Feng said, and “favors management.”
But which management? Film and television production is often decentralized and does not resemble the steel and auto industries.
The “Law & Order” television franchise, for example, involves three shows: the original and two spinoffs, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
Each has its own production company overseen by Dick Wolf, the franchise creator, and are broadcast by NBC, which is a unit of the conglomerate NBC Universal. A spokesman for NBC Universal declined comment.