Risky Business: The Rules Governing SAG-AFTRA Actors + Nonunion Work

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In the cutthroat world of entertainment, the siren call of a nonunion gig can be tempting—even for those who have already earned their coveted SAG-AFTRA card. But before you cross that line, think again. Working “off the card” on nonunion projects is a violation that could jeopardize your entire career.

The simple fact is that SAG strictly prohibits its members from taking nonunion jobs. While the short-term payoff may seem enticing, the long-term consequences are severe: We’re talking hefty fines, suspensions, and potential expulsion from the union.

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What is SAG-AFTRA?

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The Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is a labor union that counts over 160,000 film and television actors among its membership, as well as journalists and radio personalities, social media influencers, models, and other entertainment professionals. 

SAG offers agreements for members working on low-budget or student productions and is in charge of contract negotiations with broadcast and digital production companies, including the ​​Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. 

In 2023, SAG mounted a historic strike against the AMPTP. The action culminated in a new agreement that included increased residuals and streaming compensation, safeguards against AI, and regulations around casting and self-taped auditions.

SAG sets minimum salaries for its members, as well as residual payments for commercial and TV work. The union also stipulates guidelines around working conditions and safety protocols, including setting maximum hours that members are allowed to work. If an actor has an issue with the producers, such as delayed payments or unsafe conditions on set, SAG can mediate between the two parties. The union imposes penalties on producers who don’t compensate actors in a timely manner. 

Producers working under a SAG contract must contribute to the union’s pension and health funds. Members also pay into these funds, and they can access those benefits once they qualify. For example, to be eligible for SAG health insurance, actors must have made at least $27,000 that year on union-contracted jobs (with some exceptions).

Joining SAG is a rite of passage for many screen actors. Most major Hollywood production companies exclusively hire union (or soon-to-be union) performers and negotiate with SAG on their contracts.

Can SAG members work nonunion jobs?

They shouldn’t. When actors become SAG members, they pledge to abide by Global Rule One: “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 national collective bargaining agreement in place. This provision applies worldwide.”

In other words, members cannot work on a nonunion contract anywhere in the world where SAG has negotiated an agreement. 

Does SAG impose a penalty for working nonunion jobs?

Yes. Potential consequences include hefty fines, suspension, or even expulsion from the union. SAG is clear about the fact that there can be consequences to the union at large if too many members decide to work nonunion jobs. It diminishes the bargaining power SAG has to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions. 

According to the SAG website, “Nonunion work undercuts the union’s ability to negotiate the best contracts possible for you. If nonunion producers can hire the best in the business for next to nothing, they have no incentive to go union. Additionally, nonunion work allows producers to pay less and avoid paying residuals and retirement benefits. It also subjects you to longer unpaid work hours and potentially hazardous working conditions. And when you work off the card and run into problems, the union can’t help you because the project wasn’t produced under the SAG contract. Working off the card not only contributes to the growth of nonunion work, but it puts your membership in jeopardy.”

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Are there any exceptions?

SAG members can work nonunion jobs if they choose to become a “fee-paying nonmember”—in other words, a nonunion SAG member who still pays dues. 

This is because of a controversial legal carve-out called Financial Core (Fi-Core), which allows members of any union in the United States to resign but still work on union job sites. SAG actors who elect to take Fi-Core status continue to pay dues.

Technically, these actors can work both union and nonunion jobs, but they aren’t allowed to list themselves as SAG members on their résumés. This can impact their ability to get hired on union projects. Actors who elect to take this route should list themselves as Fi-Core on their résumés, since industry professionals understand that these performers can work union jobs.

That said, there’s a stigma in the entertainment industry against people who choose to take this route, including being labeled as scabs and union busters. So it’s up to the individual actor to decide whether they want to make this risky move.

Can SAG members audition for nonunion jobs?

It may sound contradictory, but though members can’t work nonunion jobs, they can audition for nonunion jobs. Actors can’t take a nonunion job unless the producer agrees to hire them on a union contract, becoming a SAG signatory. The union actually encourages members to audition for nonunion jobs so that they can convince more producers to work under a SAG contract.

Can nonunion actors work SAG jobs?

Yes—but if you do, you have to join SAG eventually. To be eligible, actors need to first work a union job. After a performer works either one day in a principal or speaking role, or three days in a background role, under a SAG contract, they become SAG-eligible and can join the union. 

At this point, actors can work for 30 days on other union sets without joining. After that time is up, they must join SAG before accepting any other union jobs.

How can I find out whether a producer or a production is union-approved?

SAG has a public database that lists every production that’s approved by the union. Before you take a job, do a search to make sure that the project you’re working on is a SAG production.

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