Actors' Rule

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Dear Michael:

I know that as union actors we're not supposed to do nonunion work. But, hypothetically, what happens if we do? I'm not saying I would. But what are the penalties? Do you get kicked out? Fined? Blacklisted?

—Curious About Consequences

Los Angeles

Dear Curious:

That would be a sticky situation, which, conveniently, is this issue's theme.

You're referencing what the Screen Actors Guild calls Global Rule One, which reads (quoting from SAG's constitution): "No member shall work as a performer or make an agreement to work as a performer for any producer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the Guild which is in full force and effect." In plain language, that means that SAG members don't work on nonunion projects—period. That name, Global Rule One, is an indication of how important it is. Discovered violations are viewed with considerable gravity, by union employees and by union members.

In fact, for generations, the undermining of one's own union has been considered among the lowest acts a person can commit, so much so that those rare union members who do it are called "scabs," a derogatory slang term meaning "a low or despicable person" that dates back to the 1500s. According to, this usage "most likely stems from the implication that such a scoundrel might well be afflicted with syphilis, which in its advanced stages causes a 'scabby' skin condition." Wow. That's some pretty serious condemnation. Word-Detective continues: "Since 'scab' already was being used to mean 'lowlife creep,' it's not surprising that by the late 1700s it was being applied to any worker who refused to join an organized trade-union movement. As one contemporary source explained in 1792, 'What is a scab? He is to his trade what a traitor is to his country.... He first sells the journeymen, and is himself afterwards sold in his turn by the masters, till at last he is despised by both and deserted by all.' " According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of "scab" now includes "one who works for less than union wages or on nonunion terms."

But your question isn't about ethics or etymology; it's about consequences. I asked representatives from our two largest unions, SAG and Actors' Equity Association, to weigh in. Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG's deputy national executive director and general counsel, responded in part, "Our members understand that a union contract is essential for SAG to be able to provide union standards and protections. Members who are charged with a violation of Rule One are required to appear before the guild's Disciplinary Review Committee or a trial board conducted by a group of their peers. A trial board has the authority to impose penalties, including reprimands, fines, suspension, or expulsion from membership in the guild."

Other unions' policies are nearly identical, as are the penalties for violators. At Equity, the matter is taken very seriously indeed, and in order to avoid such situations, the union makes every effort to educate its membership about the ramifications of scabbing, to the individual and to the union as a whole. If a member ignores those admonishments, Equity has protocols for dealing with the infraction. "When a situation is brought to the attention of Equity," explains Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma, "a business rep is assigned to investigate." If it's demonstrated that there's merit to the accusation, she continues, "a letter is sent to the member for response. The business rep will determine, based on all the findings, whether or not to go to charges. The case is brought before a Charges Committee, and that committee examines all the evidence, including any and all material submitted by the member. It is at the discretion of the committee as to what action to take, from taking no action to fines and/or expulsion. In some instances, after the business rep's initial research, a censure letter will be sent to the member rather than go to charges."

And according to the Equity constitution, "A member may be expelled, suspended, fined, or otherwise disciplined for," among other things, "engaging in any business, enterprise, or activity which may directly or indirectly conflict with the purposes or objects of the Association or any of its members, including by way of example, work as a performer or stage manager in any form of theater under the jurisdiction of the Association without benefit of an Equity employment contract or code, unless prior written consent by the Association has been granted."

So there you have it. That's what can happen to you if you're found out. And what do you do then? Well, you won't like this, but there's no way to extricate yourself from the stickiness at that point. Once you've committed the unions' unpardonable sin, you're kind of left with the consequences. It's really not worth the risk of getting caught.

But I also want to tell you about another kind of penalty—one that can happen even if you're not caught. This penalty falls on your colleagues, your fellow members, the people in your union family. If a union actor does nonunion work, the whole membership suffers. Here's why:

1) If producers can get union actors without signing union contracts, they have far less incentive to come under the union umbrella. They're getting full-fledged professional actors without agreeing to treat them as such. As a result, more jobs could go nonunion, and employment for dues-paying union members who refuse to scab could decrease.

2) Violating our most important rule suggests to producers that we don't take our rules seriously. That's a thread that can unravel the whole sweater. If we allow them to circumvent this fundamental policy, why should they adhere to others? Suddenly your colleagues may find productions neglecting to break them on time for meals, pushing them to do dangerous stunts, misreporting overtime, and who knows what else?

3) Working nonunion puts pressure on your fellow union members to do the same. Producers may start saying, "Other actors are doing it; what's your problem?"—making it look like those who won't scab are being difficult.

4) Lack of solidarity makes a union appear weak and vulnerable, which compromises our position when it comes time to negotiate for fair pay and decent working conditions.

In researching your question, I looked for union actors who'd been caught violating Rule One. I wanted to interview them about the consequences imposed on them. Even using my best resources, I wasn't able to find a single interview subject. That may mean that very few have been guilty of this violation, or that those who have were too ashamed to discuss it, even anonymously. Maybe both things are true. In either event, even if you're not bothered by the ethics, it would seem that violating Rule One isn't worth the trouble or embarrassment it can cause. Glad to know you're not planning to do that.

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