Face it: Throughout the centuries, society has had a love/hate relationship with actors. Successful performers are idolized, but you wouldn't want your daughter to marry a struggling one! Communicative storytelling is an ancient tradition, and although people hunger for it, respect for the actors who provide such diversion has sometimes waned. In Shakespeare's time, it was said that the theatre attracted all those who "were loose in London." (Maybe this referred to the audience, too.)
Today our society is fascinated by million-dollar faces peering down from silver screens, at the same time, many people mock the waiter who dreams about the next call from his agent. The rewards of a successful acting career can be a plethora of riches, fame, and influence, albeit for a small percentage of lucky actors. It's this inherent marriage of starry-eyed belief, coupled with necessary risk-taking, which can lead the most talented actor through a perilous jungle of pitfalls. And who protects actors from these dangers?
A historical section in the Actors' Equity Association manual describes the situation for the typical stage actor in 1913: "For many years prior, exploitation had become a permanent condition of an actors' employment. There was no basic agreement. Producers set their own working conditions. There was no minimum wage; no compensation for rehearsals; rehearsal time was unlimited; and no playing-time guarantee was given. Frequently, actors in a failed company were stranded in a town miles from their homes. Costumes were furnished by the actor. Holiday matinees were numerous and performed without pay. Productions closed during lean weeks without pay. Dismissal took place without any notice to the actors."
Today, some actors may enjoy the benefits of joining a union, without appreciating the struggles of earlier performers. A few actors complain about expensive initiation dues and annual fees. However, union dues fund their opportunity to have their voices heard by potential employers and legislative authorities. It is a privilege to be represented by a collective bargaining unit whose purpose is to protect your career.
And performer's unions have a rich, prominent national history that has benefited many people‹some who were not even actors. For example, in 1947 the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. refused to admit African-American audiences. Actors' Equity would not support the venue, which eventually closed. When it reopened, the new management boasted an anti-discrimination policy.
Collective bargaining, arbitration, minimum wages, safe working environments, and health insurance were hard-won battles. Union founders dealt with discrimination, low and inconsistent pay, poor facilities, personal risks, and few rights.
Life for performers is considerably better in 1999. The entertainment unions are some of the most powerful, active labor organizations in the United States. The Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4As) is an umbrella organization that is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Initially, unions received their Federal charters through this organization. Members of the 4As include Actors' Equity Association (AEA), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Italian Actors Union (IAU), and the Hebrew Actors Union (HAU).
These unions guarantee minimum wages and safe facilities, impose meal penalties, offer seminars and retraining, and provide health insurance, career counseling, showcases, retirement planning, credit unions, and decent dressing rooms. Income tax assistance, scholarships, pension and wealth funds, and federal lobbyists are also benefits of joining a union.
If you are a performer dedicating your life to the arts, the union is your avenue to a better lifestyle and a supportive environment. Many guilds have committees that address various member issues. Support the programs and seminars that the union offers and give them feedback and ideas. The unions exist for their members. They provide a forum for a working democracy.
What follows is an overview of the five best-known members of the 4As. Contact your union for further details. Many basic services and affiliations with industry nonprofit charitable organizations are consistent for all of the unions. Unions are listed in order of membership population.
Screen Actors Guild
SAG's members total over 97,000 nationwide. Thirty percent of these members are working in any given year, said Katherine Ann Moore, national director of communications. This prestigious union was established in 1933.
Initiation fees are $1,152, plus the first semi-annual dues of $42.50 ($85 annually) for a total joining fee of $1,194.50. Members who earn more than $5,000 per year under SAG contracts pay 1 1/2 percent of their gross income over $5,000, to a maximum of $150,000. Reciprocal agreements exist with sister unions and result in lowered dues, unless SAG earnings exceed $25,000, in which case full dues are payable.
Performers who have proof of employment or prospective employment within two weeks by a SAG signatory can join the union. The actor must have a principal or speaking role in a SAG film, videotape television program, or commercial. Performers may also join as a SAG-covered extra player.
If the applicant is a paid-up member in good standing from an affiliated union (AFTRA, AEA, AGVA or AGMA) for at least one year and they have worked once as a principal under that union, then they can join SAG.
Benefits of joining SAG include collective bargaining for minimum wages, residual structure, and working conditions. Contracts are enforced by two types of business representatives, one of whom visits the set on a daily basis. Moore said these representatives serve as a "resource and an advocate for the performers who are working, to answer questions and to try to resolves disputes which arise in terms of the interpretation of the contract during production. We have another group of representatives who process claims if at the conclusion of a production, someone wants to file a claim against a signatory producer about a contract violation." An example would be a meal penalty that wasn't paid. Moore added, "There are fines assessed for certain types of violations."
The guild also offers health insurance, a pension program, and various seminars, workshops, and activities for members, including casting showcases and lectures regarding agents and young performers.
Moore noted, "The union is the membership. We have a professional paid staff, but ultimately, the direction and the vision of the union is the membership. And the smartest way to get that organized is through committees for special interests and focus. That is the route via which people get involved with the guild and eventually run for the board or become an activist at some other level. They're drawn in because of their own area of interest."
The SAG credit union offers many services, including programs that are designed especially for the lifestyles of the members. As you know, it can be difficult to get a loan from a conventional bank if you make several hundred thousand dollars in one year and nothing the next year.
The SAG Foundation also has a scholarship fund for dependents and members who want to return to school for a higher education.
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
Currently, there are 71,000 members of this union. At any given time, about 30 percent are working. AFTRA represents broadcasters, singers, and dancers for live and taped television, radio transcriptions, phonograph recordings, and non-broadcast recorded material.
The initiation dues are $1,000, plus current annual dues of $85. Dues have not increased since 1989. Initiation fees increased last year from $800 to $1,000. The dues are based on a sliding scale, according to gross income. As with most unions, if an organization other than AFTRA is the performer's parent union, there will be a discount on the dues.
You can join AFTRA voluntarily even before you have a job. Associate executive director Pamm Fair said that this is rare: "People don't join AFTRA frivolously. There aren't many people who walk in and pay $1,000 on a whim. Those who aren't serious get weeded out."
Members also join through the Taft Hartley Act. Fair explained the Act: "You have 30 consecutive days to work within a union's jurisdiction before you're compelled to join." If the period ends, then a performer will usually join before they secure another job.
Fair notes that the greatest benefit of joining any labor union is that collective bargaining carries more emphasis than individual negotiations. She added that, "Our function as a union is twofold. One is to negotiate and enforce contracts for the people that we represent. We negotiate minimums. Obviously, many people do receive the minimums. Many people also get the minimums when it comes to the working conditions.
"The second thing that we do is to provide service to the members. Not just in the contract-enforcement area but through programs, seminars, workshops, and career days. We try to get our members in touch with the people who can hire them. We have monthly showcases where members can come in and do two-minute scenes for casting directors and agents." These showcases are performed for four or five people at the AFTRA headquarters. There is always a good turnout and many actors have secured agents and feature roles from these events.
Other union-sponsored events include the recent EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Committee) career day for performers of color that was held in conjunction with SAG on Jan. 23. Eleven hundred combined union members attended two-hour workshops and private meetings with casting directors. Singer showcases, hosted at Planet Hollywood, are also successful AFTRA programs, wherein eight seasoned artists perform for record company executives.
The Actors Fund of America, a multi-union endeavor, has an offshoot that AFTRA houses called "The Actors' Work Program." Fair noted that "it is career counseling for ways to make a living while you're pursuing your career. Paid psychologists evaluate your education and life experiences to find a job for you that is meaningful and financially rewarding while you're trying to act." There are also a host of employers who know that they're hiring actors and are willing to be flexible in scheduling. Waiting tables is not the only alternative for making a living.
An interesting result of this program is that there was recently a need for people who could teach English as a Second Language at the community college level, during night school. "A performer is a perfect candidate. Obviously they have good verbal skills and a certain teaching ability. They're also outgoing. It was a good match," said Fair.
These timely seminars prove that the union is very proactive in its response to actor's real-world issues, Fair said that the union was always ahead of its time. "Our agreements historically, since AFTRA was formed in 1937, included health and retirement benefits and residuals. AFTRA has always had residuals." Even when television was live, the union stated that if the show were duplicated, there would be a payment due to the performers.
AFTRA also provides health insurance. "Qualification is based on the previous year's earnings," said Fair. "For an individual to be covered, they need $7,500 in earnings for the previous year. For a family, it is $15,000. Contributions are made on top of a performer's gross income, so it isn't deducted out of their checks. Once they reach those benchmarks, they receive remarkable coverage for the next year. Thereafter, there is a self-pay COBRA plan until they are covered by the union again through wages earned as a performer."
Limited scholarships and emergency financial assistance are also available to AFTRA members.
Actors' Equity Association
There are 40,000 nationwide members of this union, which was founded in 1913. Johanna McAvoy, supervisor of membership, says that 30 percent of Equity's ranks are working at one time.
Dues are $800 for initiation and $78 annually, if Equity is the parent union. Members pay $300 up front and have two years to pay the balance. The last increase was about six years ago. Equity's union jurisdiction includes Broadway, Off-Broadway, touring companies, stock, caf theatre, and theatre for young audiences.
McAvoy explained that there are three different ways to join Actors' Equity:
1. Most members join by crossing over from a sister union, one of the 4As, where they have been members in good standing for at least one year. The actor must have worked in one principal part or three extra parts in the sister union before becoming an Equity member.
2. Members can join by signing an employment contract with a theatre or producer under Equity's jurisdiction.
3. Many people join the union under the candidate program. They need 50 points (one for each week of performances) to join without a contract. If they accumulate 40 points, then they can take a test. If the actor is in the candidate program and they belong to a sister union, then they only have to accumulate 25 points. After 50 maximum weeks working as a candidate, the actor needs to sign a union contract the next time they are employed at an Equity theatre.
McAvoy emphasizes benefits, specific to the union, regarding protection in the workplace. Contracts are pay or play. She says that "if you sign a contract and the theatre goes out of business, you get your money. If you are injured, the union makes sure you are treated properly."
Equity contracts also include articles about job security, dispute resolution, arbitration procedures, and theatrical codes for non-paid showcases. Bonding is required of employers before a production begins to ensure that actors will receive the minimum salary and pension and health credits for two weeks, in the event the show ends prematurely. Franchise regulations for talent agents, standard agency contracts, and commission schedules are other services provided by the union to protect its members. Additionally, the union can help members file for State Unemployment Insurance and Workers' Compensation.
Actors' Equity offers seminars for new members as well as IRS training for VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance). There is of course a Pension and Health program for this union as well, with current assets of over half a billion dollars.
Nonprofit organizations affiliated with Actors' Equity include the Actors' Equity Foundation, Actors' Fund of America, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, Career Transition for Dancers, Theater Authority, and the Actors' Federal Credit Union.
American Guild of Musical Artists
Dianne James, national manager of administration and operations for AGMA said, "We handle opera, concert, and dance, like ballet and jazz, for organizations such as Ballet Hispanico and the New York City Ballet. In some cases, we handle community light civic opera companies, but those productions are not usually unionized."
The union represents a few road shows, like Matthew Bourne's version of Swan Lake, which recently toured. Certain versions of Broadway shows are also covered by AGMA jurisdiction if they are specifically operatic in nature. James notes that Andrew Lloyd Webber's Music of the Night was an AGMA production, because it was a concert version.
The union, founded in 1936, has 5,600 active members. James said, "Five thousand members are working. We have the highest percentage of working members. Of course, they might only do one concert a year. We also have a very liberal honorary withdrawal policy, so it doesn't cost members much to reactivate if they haven't worked for a year."
Membership is by application. Initiation fees are $500 and basic dues are $78 per year. Working dues are two percent of annual gross with a cap of $2,000 per year. If you are an Equity member, there are reciprocal agreements with a discount on fees. The dues last changed in 1991. At three years, AGMA's requirement for joining is the longest term of all the unions. A cap of 12.5 percent of dues can be deducted from a member's check.
Union benefits include supervising negotiations and arbitration with individual production companies. AGMA confirms that roles are classified correctly. It handles arbitration and cancellation of "Pay or Play" contracts.
James added that "We offer health insurance, but it is negotiated on a company-by-company basis. The A program is for larger companies. The B program covers traveling artists. They accumulate health benefits that are applied against their own individual insurance. It's like a medical reimbursement plan."
AGMA also participates in the Career Transitions for Dancers in New York. Retraining for union members has included scholarships to Fashion School. Contributions are also made to the multi-union Actors' Work Program. Recent membership seminars include "How to Budget for Your Retirement." AGMA members are eligible for the Actors' Equity credit union.
AGMA members can also participate in Union Privilege, an organization affiliated with all AFL-CIO organizations. Union Privilege offers discounted legal services, free consultations, and pre-negotiated lower fees.
Other union advantages include a union credit card, a mortgage and real estate program, loan program, life insurance, a dental program, and a parents' college advisor.
American Guild of Variety Artists
Lon Huber, AGVA's West Coast director, noted that the union was formed from several other organizations of comedians and informal vaudevillian groups in 1939. AGVA membership totals 5,000 with a 30-percent work ratio.
In the '40s through the '60s, AGVA was a very vibrant union. Now, many of the members are older or retired performers, including vaudevillians, magicians, comedians, and nightclub performers. AGVA also maintains a Casual/Club Date Contract that protects performers who work at private parties, weddings, and nightclubs. Minimum payments, a "Pay or Play" guarantee, and accident insurance are covered under this contract.
Although AGVA receives many calls for performers, most current variety artists are not usually members. AGVA cannot negotiate a contract with nightclubs to represent the performers, because the actors are considered independent contractors, not employees. Performers can have contracts with the union. However, the union wouldn't then have a contract with a venue.
AGVA's long-term contracts cover performers at Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Radio City Music Hall. Some Broadway, Off-Broadway, and cabaret productions are also signatories to the AGVA contract. Current contracts also include the Great Radio City Spectacular in Las Vegas and Buena Vista Special Events.
Membership is by application. Initiation fees are $600 and current minimum dues are $72 per year. Sliding-scale dues are based on gross income and can range up to $795 for incomes of $35,000 or more. Dues have remained steady since 1991.
The union negotiates minimum salaries and conditions of employment regarding rehearsals, overtime safety, and sanitary working conditions. The union also provides grievance resolution, collective bargaining, and representation. Other benefits of AGVA membership include the Welfare Trust Fund, the AGVA/Margie Coate Sick and Relief Fund for emergency grants, valuable discounts for dance studios, coaches, and other entertainment services, representation in the Academy Players Directory, and eligibility in the AFTRA-SAG Federal Credit Union.
Huber said a unique feature of AGVA is that the "medical plan is tailored for the kind of performers we have and the kind of lifestyle they lead. The other unions have great medical plans, and basically you earn your eligibility in one year for benefits in the next year; you earn it through dollars or weeks worked which are banked. AGVA's plan comes into play much faster: Basically, if you're under a collective bargaining agreement with a medical plan, you have your full coverage after three full weeks of work. It lasts for a specified amount of time after your last day of work."
AGVA also sponsors a program called Senior Benefits Shows, so that performers can try out new material in between paying gigs.
The larger unions have their own Federal and State lobbyists. Other unions can lobby through the AFL-CIO or lend their support to their sister unions.
SAG's national director Moore said, "The issues that we address at a legislative level cannot be resolved or not appropriately resolved within the collective bargaining process. Last year Governor Wilson signed the Californian Privacy Bill that was a guild-sponsored initiative, which created privacy protection for high-profile members and crime victims as well. We work very closely with our sister unions."
As an example of other current issues, AGMA mentioned the right to unemployment, worker's compensation, and other ramifications of the employee vs. 1099 status.
One final note: There are interesting tax issues regarding union initiation fees and dues that should be noted. Linda Edwards, CPA with Groves Accountancy Corporation in Canoga Park, has many entertainment clients.
She said that "since most performers are on a cash reporting basis, they can deduct their professional dues in the year that they are paid. There might be some confusion, because club dues are not deductible on the Federal level, but professional and public service organization dues are deductible."
Itemized deductions can lower the basis for your income tax, so your liability decreases. However, if you cannot itemize deductions, there is a consolation. Edwards noted that "some actors qualify for a special provision that allows them to expense professional organization dues and other business expenses as an adjustment, so that they don't always have to itemize to be able to deduct these things."
This actor-friendly statute was enacted during Reagan's presidency. See, there's something to be said for loyalty to one's union. You never know how far it can get you. BSW