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 work union, projects tend to be of better quality, the work environment 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. 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.
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.
While made-for-television animation VO work pays residuals (you get paid each time it airs on cable and network, generally), 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. You’re pretty much on your own with non-union work, and it sure feels that way. 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.
Starting at this level 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.
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.
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.
The strength and dignity of a union is 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.