And thanks for reading! This week let’s talk about the union (SAG-AFTRA).
Just a reminder here that when I use the term “actor” I mean it to encompass all forms of acting including voice, stage, and screen. Yeah, I know I say this every week, but it falls under the heading of “The things that go without saying are the things that most need to be said”. For this week, however, what follows applies relatively equally to VO artists and screen actors, but stage has its own union Actor’s Equity. It’s similar, but eligibility in particular will be different. One note is that membership in one or the the for the course of a year means automatic eligibility in the other.
If you’ve been involved in the acting or VO industry for any amount of time, you’ll know that 2023 is the year that all of the unions renegotiate their contracts. And if you are paying attention to that, you’ll also note that this is one of the renegotiation years where there is a bit of angst. What the angst means is that the unions are not presently pre-negotiating, which means there is some risk of the present agreement expiring without a new agreement, which could lead to a strike. It’s not very likely, since they typically just extend the old agreement until the new agreement is signed, but because of that some large productions seem to be holding off until a new agreement is in place. That means there are fewer productions ongoing, and fewer opportunities. Basically, if you’ve noticed a slow-down in available roles, that’s why. Let’s talk about what the union is and what it does for artists.
What is the union?
SAG-AFTRA, or The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of television & Radio Artists, is the union that represents actors and VO artists as well as broadcast journalists and radio DJ’s. It, like other unions, is the collective bargaining group that negotiates with producers to establish salaries, working conditions, safety on set and many other aspects of employment. SAG was established in 1933 to prevent the exploitation of actors and AFTRA was established in 1937. The two merged recently, in 2012 to form SAG-AFTRA. Fran Drescher of “The Nanny” fame, is the current President of SAG-AFTRA.
What is the benefit of the union?
There are definitely many benefits to joining the union, which to many is a significant rite of passage, but there are ALSO some drawbacks. First, the benefits. In addition to negotiating contracts membership includes things like a health and pension fund, the SAG-AFTRA conservatory offering training workshops, casting workshops with big name CD’s, deals and discounts for things like hotels and car rental, discount movie tickets, voting for SAG awards (which includes free viewing of the films being voted on), and many others.
SAG definitely provides some benefits to performers, particularly since performers tend to be self-employed freelance artists who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a pension or health insurance (at least not affordable health insurance). But, Global Rule Number 1, depending on what market you live/work in may keep you from working much. “Global Rule 1 states: No member shall render any services or make an agreement to perform services for any employer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the union, which is in full force and effect, in any jurisdiction in which there is a SAG-AFTRA national collective bargaining agreement in place. This provision applies worldwide” (SAG-AFTRA.org)
Why is that potentially bad?
In short, when you join, you are agreeing to never work on a non-union project again. If you are not in LA or NYC the number of union productions are going to be low. And unless you have already established a name for yourself within the industry, read you are a recognizable actor with a good resume showcasing your talent, productions aren’t likely to want to pay for travel and will hire someone local instead. This is slightly different for voice artists with a professional home setup since they work almost exclusively remotely. Note that Global Rule 1 for SAG does not apply to work on stage projects and vice versa for Equity membership not applying to work in non-union screen projects.
If you join too soon, you wind up with a pile of awesome benefits you can’t use because you have restricted access to lucrative union gigs. It’s something to consider depending on what market you live in or if you are unwilling to re-locate to a bigger market. Otherwise, you can agree to “work as local” which means they hire you as though you live in their market and all of your travel expenses are your responsibility. That can sometimes mean it costs more to get hired than you are getting paid.
Well, then, when should I join?
Assuming you have qualified for eligibility to join, which we’ll talk about next, the best time to join is really a personal decision. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons for your individual situation. The general consensus amongst everyone I have spoken with is this: Join when you have to. Eligibility to join, once achieved, never expires. Some people become eligible quickly, then remain eligible for decades before joining. How will you know you have to join? Simple, you’ll get hired for a union gig and because of the contract with the production company they will be forbidden from hiring you unless you join.
How to become eligible
In short, working as a principal artist on a single union contract or as a background artist on three union contracts makes you eligible to join. How can you work a union contract without being a member in the first place? The Taft-Hartley act. This act in part prevents unions from coercing people to join and forbids “closed shops”. Without going into exceptionally boring legal detail, this means that because of Taft-Hartley a union project can hire a non-union employee for 30 days without the need to join the union. You’ll hear people say they got “Taft-Hartley’d” and that’s what it means.
You’ll also hear the term “must join” bandied about and what that means is the union has granted the 30-day Taft-Hartley exemption to a non-union artist and they have reached or exceeded the 30-day limit. If you ask the union rep what must-join is, he or she will tell you there is no such thing since you can never, by law, be compelled to join. They call it must-pay – which amounts to the same thing. At the end of the day if you have been Taft-Hartley’d into eligibility and have exhausted the 30-day work exemption limit you will not be eligible for a union employment contract unless and until you pay your initiation fee and are up to date on dues – a member in good standing.
What is the cost to join?
Well, first, there are a couple different ways to join. If you join nationally, which includes coverage in major markets like LA and NYC, the initiation fee is $3000 and annual dues are $227.42 plus 1.575 percent of covered earnings up to $750,000.00. Pretty pricey. You can however join as a regional member to reduce initiation fees and regional membership is calculated based on the region so you’ll have to check. You can find out your regional office (based on your mailing address) by going here and scrolling down to the map titled “Locals”, calling the head office in LA (855-724-2387) or sending an email and asking.
Joining regionally is a lot less for initiation (half or less) and covers you for the entire US EXCEPT major markets like LA, NYC, Chicago, and Atlanta. Major markets may shift from time to time, so you’ll have to ask what markets are excluded when you join as a regional member. Doing this won’t stop you from working in the major market, but when you are hired in a major market, you’ll then automatically be billed for the difference in initiation fees.
The dreaded FICORE
You may have heard of FICORE. FICORE stands for “Financial Core”. Most people think that becoming a member of FICORE allows you to work both union AND non-union gigs, and in a way that’s true. In essence, deciding to go FICORE means that you are or were a member in good standing but for whatever reason are resigning from the union. Of course, you’ll still need to pay annual dues including a percentage of your salary for covered gigs, you will not get a refund on initiation fees, but you will not maintain the same level of protection or be able to use the benefits of being a SAG member.
Why is FICORE “dreaded”?
The sad truth is many productions “look down on” FICORE actors and while they would be allowed to hire you, they may choose otherwise in favor of another member in good standing. Again, this is a very personal decision, and if you want to go this route, I urge you to speak with a SAG rep and an entertainment attorney to fully understand the implications.
At the end of the day
The decision to join or not join the union is a strictly personal one. The union can provide actors many benefits and not just established pay minimums and good working conditions…but it may also reduce the number of jobs you can book depending on where you live. The only really solid, steadfast advice on whether or not join is this: Don’t join until you have to so that you can continue to work the largest number of gigs to build your resume. That time is different for everyone, but you’ll know when it’s right for you.