If you’re a member of SAG-AFTRA, the union for screen actors, you’ve probably wondered whether or not SAG actors can work nonunion jobs. The short answer is: No.
It can be tempting to say yes to any work that’s offered to you, even if it’s nonunion. The consequences, however, come at a high price. Working nonunion jobs, also known as working “off the card,” can lead to fines, suspension, and even expulsion from SAG-AFTRA.
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.
The union is in charge of contract negotiations with broadcast and digital production companies, including the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. SAG also offers contracts for members working on low-budget or student productions.
SAG-AFTRA sets the minimum salary that its members must be paid, as well as residual payments for commercial and TV work. It also stipulates working conditions and safety protocols in its contracts, including setting maximum hours that its members are allowed to work. If an actor has an issue with the producers, such as delayed payments or unsafe conditions on set, the union can mediate. It can also impose penalties on producers who don’t pay in a timely manner.
Producers working on a SAG-AFTRA contract must also contribute to the union’s pension and health funds. Members also pay into these, and can use those benefits once they qualify. For example, to be eligible for union health insurance, actors must have made at least $25,950 a year on union contracts (with some exceptions).
Joining SAG-AFTRA is a rite of passage for many screen actors. Most major Hollywood production companies exclusively hire union (or soon-to-be union) actors and negotiate with SAG-AFTRA on those actors’ contracts.
They should not. When actors become SAG-AFTRA 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-AFTRA 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-AFTRA has negotiated a contract.
Working “off the card” comes with severe consequences. A member who violates Global Rule One can incur hefty fines, and could be suspended or even expelled from the union. SAG-AFTRA is clear that there can be consequences to the union at large if many members decide to work nonunion. It diminishes the bargaining power SAG has to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions for its members.
SAG-AFTRA’s statement reads: “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-AFTRA contract.”
SAG-AFTRA members can work nonunion jobs if they choose to become a “Fee Paying Non-Member”—or rather, a nonunion SAG member that still pays dues.
This is because of a controversial legal carveout called Financial Core (or Fi-core), which allows members of any union in the United States to resign from the union but still work on union job sites. SAG-AFTRA actors who elect to take on Fi-core status continue to pay dues to the union.
Technically, these actors can work both union and nonunion jobs, but they are not allowed to list themselves as members of SAG-AFTRA on their résumés. This can impact whether or not they get hired on union projects.
Actors who elect to take this route can list themselves as “Fi-core” on their resume. Industry professionals understand that these performers can work union jobs.
But there is a stigma in the entertainment industry against people who choose this status (including being called “scabs” and “union busters”). So it is up to actors to decide if they want to make this risky move.
It may sound contradictory, but though SAG-AFTRA members can’t work nonunion jobs, they can audition for nonunion jobs.
Actors cannot take a nonunion job unless the producer agrees to hire them on a union contract, also known as becoming a “SAG-AFTRA signatory.” The union actually encourages members to audition for nonunion jobs so that those actors can convince more producers to work on a SAG contract.
Yes—but if you do, you have to join the union 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-AFTRA contract, they become SAG-eligible and can then join the union.
After becoming eligible, actors can work for 30 days on other union sets without joining. After their 30 days are up, they must join SAG before accepting any other union jobs.
SAG-AFTRA has a public database that lists every production approved by SAG-AFTRA. Before you take a job, do a search to make sure that the production you’re working on is a union production.