Dee Bradley Baker's "All to Know About Going Pro in V.O."

Joining the Union

When you are ready- join the actors union SAG-AFTRA and stay committed to it.

I am a big believer in the benefits of joining an actors’ union– when you are ready. Not only will you accrue pension benefits from working union, but you can qualify for health coverage for you and your family and you will enjoy the protection of negotiated contracts that can provide residuals that can help when times are lean. If there’s a problem, your union will go to bat for you, sort of like having a big brother if things get rough. When you join the union, projects tend to be of better quality, the work environment way better, the level of professionalism is higher as well as income.

Everyone starts non-union, but most aspire to get beyond it for the reasons above.

The competition tends to also be correspondingly tougher in a union, as the level of talent and professionalism is higher. You should make sure you are competition-ready before you join a union, otherwise you can lock yourself into a competitive environment that is out of your league. A confident performer should welcome a little competition, in my view.  I recommend “getting your sea legs” with non-union work first to make sure you are good to go before stepping up to a professional union.

How do you join SAG-AFTRA (the performers’ union for movies, TV, radio & video games)? First, you should have good experience and confidence as an actor. You should be ready to compete at a higher level before joining. If you have the talent, can demonstrate that, and maybe have your promotional materials in order (website & demo) and have earned the trust/respect of some fellow actors who are already members (perhaps met in a class or some performance?) who can maybe recommend you, then you may be of interest to an agency that represents union talent.

If you’re professionally competitive but not yet a union member, then it might be worth a chance for an agency to sign you on (or “hip pocket” you for a while) and see if you book something. That’s sort of your first hurdle– getting signed with a union agency after convincing them you’re good and worth their time and effort to send you on auditions.

If you give a great audition for a union project but are non-union, then the producers must pay a small fee to the union in order to hire you.  They must also demonstrate they have done their best to try and cast their role with a union member (but you are the one!). If they hire you, you then become “eligible” to join the union but you aren’t obligated to join the union until your second gig. While signing up for the union is optional for your first union gig, you must have your union initiation fee fully paid before reporting to your second union gig, otherwise the producers will get in big trouble with the union, meaning you will get in trouble and your agent will be pissed too.  You join and say “goodbye” to the beginning of your career and “hello” to where you want to go.

When you join a union you pledge to no longer do “non-union” work. This solidarity with fellow union performers gives you all collectively the power to negotiate better conditions and pay. It is the union’s power to protect and improve conditions for all. 

While made-for-television union animation VO work pays residuals (you get paid each time it airs on cable and network, or your voice gets lifted into a game, for instance), some union voice over work does not usually pay residuals- this includes video games, anime dubbing and some made-for-streaming work, (so far). In these latter instances, you get paid your session fee and that’s it. 

There are also various formulas for getting paid for DVD/blueray sales, as well as digital sales, depending on the original contract you recorded under and where it is then aired/consumed. This “post session fee” income is referred to as “the backend” pay.  So, you generally get paid for the original session, possibly to record any pick ups, and then later when it airs or sells. You get paid for the “backend” in perpetuity. In this way, your acting work as a union actor can be the “gift that keeps giving!” 

For current union pay rates CLICK HERE.

For television, movies, interactive games as well as some web-based content, the union is SAG-AFTRA. For stage work, it’s Actor’s Equity.

Non-union work, by contrast, often pays less in session fees, but more significantly pays no residuals and offers you no pension or health benefits and offers no contractual protection. If a dispute arises (e.g. being asked to do more than than you originally agreed, not getting paid), a union contract means you have your union’s membership and legal team to back you up and fight back for what is fair and safe.

To qualify for union health benefits you must earn a certain level of income in a year of work. Health coverage for yourself or family is one of the biggest reasons to join and support a union. Another is the pension fund that will accrue over your career and be ready for you later in life. Non-union gets you none of this.   

You’re pretty much on your own with non-union work, and it sure feels that way. If you have a dispute you can hire your own lawyer. Same with non-union agents– they take a bigger cut of your money and they aren’t as likely to feel obligated to treat you fairly as they haven’t signed on to standards set by an ever-watchful actor’s union. You will probably feel you are taken advantage of in many ways when doing non-union work. That’s because you are.

Starting non-union is part of “paying your dues,” but most who leave it are more than glad to say goodbye to what often feels a much lower level of professionalism all ’round. It’s interesting to note that, as a union negotiates higher pay rates for its members, the rates of non-union performers also rise– “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Most everyone starts in the non-union realm to gain experience and most want to get beyond it as soon as they can to a more lucrative, safer and more artistically fulfilling level of work through a union. This is true of actors, writers, directors, and so on. 

Going union and staying union also speaks to your artistic commitment and how you value your creative power. It sets a higher and brighter horizon for your professional career. Refusing to do non-union work shows an integrity and degree of self-respect as well as mature consideration for your status and situation.  Many have fought and sacrificed to creative the union contract you enjoy. Why undermine that by going back on your pledge to only work union? It shows a selfish lack of gratitude and a short-sighted perspective. 

The few who join the union and still choose to do non-union work behind the backs of other members (doing “special projects,” as it is sometimes called) undermine both themselves and fellow performers. This kind of thing also indicates setting a lower level of career expectation and shows a lower image of self-worth. It is a limiting choice personally and professionally. Word inevitably gets out and this “scabbing” is a great way to diminish what fellow performers and other creatives think of you. Once you join the union, have the self respect of sticking with your artistic brothers and sisters.  

When you book your first union gig, the producers have to pay a small fee to the union and prove they’ve considered qualified union performers when making the choice to hire a non-union actor. Your status is then “SAG-AFTRA eligible.” This means you can join the union anytime, but are not yet a member or obligated to join. Upon booking your second union gig, you must have your union membership initiation fee fully paid before you report to work. That is when you must join.

Some join immediately when they become “eligible” and some choose to wait to maybe get a bit more non-union experience under their belt. That’s your choice, but you must be paid up in full before your second union gig start time. 

There is an initiation fee to join the union that ain’t cheap and then you pay bi-yearly dues that are computed from your yearly union income. Paid up members also can take advantage of many union benefits including many opportunities to network and hone your craft. The SAG-AFTRA VO Lab is a wonderful resource for any aspiring voice actor.

Once you join a union, show some class and self respect and don’t undermine your fellow performers (or yourself) by doing non-union work anymore. That is the number one rule of the union– don’t work non-union anymore! It is this commitment that give the union its power to negotiate and protect its members.

A few union members choose to ignore their commitment and work “off the card” on “special projects,” which is another way of saying “non-union.” Whether they do this out of desperation for money or just lack integrity and self-respect, it is an unfortunate choice for all. It is self-limiting and doesn’t reflect well on those who do this. 

The strength and dignity of a union is founded on the solidarity of its members. Those union members that choose to (secretly) do non-union work undermine everyone’s ability to earn a living, improve our contracts, and qualify for health benefits and pension. They also are taking advantage of the work ethic of their union peers, an easier trick to pull off in the mostly hidden voice over world.

Ultimately, union members who choose to work non-union are shooting themselves in the foot in the name of selfish short-term gain. 


© Dee Bradley Baker 2023

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