For most actors, being a part of SAG-AFTRA is a simple yes-or-no situation. Either you paid the initiation fee and are now a card-carrying member, or you’re still searching for that principal role (or the three extras vouchers) you need to join.
But there’s a third, more complex option in between: Financial Core, or Fi-Core. Keep reading for more information on Fi-Core, what it means, and how it can affect your job opportunities—both positively and negatively.
Fi-Core actors have no say in union policies and no voting rights. However, they are also not bound by the rules of the union—and in the cases of performing unions like SAG-AFTRA, that means performers can work on both union and nonunion sets and stages.
The concept dates back to 1959, when United Auto Workers proposed an “agency shop” agreement to General Motors, one that would require nonunion employees to pay fees that compensated the union for the costs of fighting for better conditions. They would not owe full dues, but the payment would acknowledge that even though nonunion employees are not technically members, they, too, benefit from the advancements the union fights for.
GM was not a fan of the new policy, and the case ended up in front of the Supreme Court in 1963 as National Labor Relations Board v. General Motors. In an 8–0 decision (one justice abstained), the Court declared that being employed and remaining effectively nonunion in a unionized workplace is indeed legal—so long as you’re able to pay for the core benefits you receive from said union. “ ‘Membership’ as a condition of employment,” the decision says, “is whittled down to its financial core.”
That two-word turn of phrase from Justice Byron White created a new category of employee.
The biggest benefit of joining the union is having access to casting opportunities in major productions. There are few nonunion producers whose works play on 3,000 screens nationwide or on network television; even the streamers, despite Silicon Valley’s union-averse attitude, have contracts with SAG-AFTRA. If a production governed by the union’s pact with producers wants to hire a nonunion actor, it must prove that they have a specific skill that can’t be found within the union; otherwise, the producers must pay a fee—and considering the budget crunch on many productions, that’s a rare case.
The union’s sway during contract negotiations raises the salaries of most members. Superstars will still make superstar money without a union, but SAG-AFTRA deals prevent a race to the bottom in terms of payment—and that can only happen if most talented actors stand together. Right now, the minimum rates you’ll make as a union member look like this:
- Theatrical film (budget above $2 million): $1,082 (day performer), $3,756 (weekly)
- Theatrical low-budget film (below $2 million): $686 (day performer), $2,382 (weekly)
- Theatrical moderate low-budget film (below $700,000): $370 (day performer), $1,282 (weekly)
- Theatrical ultra-low-budget film (maximum $300,000): $211 (day performer)
- Short film: $211 (day performer)
- Television: $1,082 (day performer), $2,741 (three days), $3,756 (week)
- Television (major role, half hour): $5,951 (based on five days)
- Television (major role, one hour): $9,522 (based on eight days)
Health insurance and pensions
Actors must earn a certain amount each year to qualify for health insurance and pensions. For instance, it takes $20,000 in earnings to gain a “credit” for the pension plan.
SAG members get screener copies (or access to streaming screeners) of most films competing for awards each year, along with low-cost development classes at the SAG-AFTRA L.A. Conservatory (for Los Angeles residents).They also have access to Q&As with top-tier actors, directors, and casting directors.
The phrase Financial Core is based on the idea that someone can pay the “core” cost of membership—fees related to providing legal counsel for collective bargaining, operation of the union itself, etc. But it also highlights the truth about why an actor may choose the Fi-Core route: It’s about the money. Considerations include:
Union and nonunion opportunities
By going Fi-Core, an actor can be cast in any project, whether it’s union or nonunion. While the union gigs at the top of the pay pyramid do tend to be the most profitable, nonunion roles can also help a performer pay rent. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with three agency sources in 2019 about the state of the commercial world, and those insiders put the percentage of commercials that hired nonunion actors anywhere between 50–70%. In 1999, that percentage reportedly hovered around 10%. It’s led to fewer actors being able to make a living solely on commercial work, since nonunion work does tend to pay less. On the other hand, it’s also created more paying opportunities for those who aren’t in the union.
There’s a geographic argument for going Fi-Core, as well. Cities like Los Angeles and New York have enough union work to support a performer, theoretically (though the actor still must book the roles, of course). However, does it make sense for an actor to be a union member outside of the major markets? Is there enough SAG-AFTRA work in a smaller community to make a living?
That question goes double for international actors, thanks to the guild’s Global Rule One, which forbids actors from working on nonunion productions around the world.
Actors’ Equity Association
Speaking of Global Rule One, the solidarity between SAG-AFTRA and Equity is another reason some may consider becoming dues-paying nonmembers. Technically, a SAG-AFTRA actor should not perform in non-Equity stage productions under Global Rule One by agreement between the two unions; the inverse is also true. In some towns—Los Angeles is a major example—a large number of theater productions are nonunion, as ticket sales can rarely pay for actor salaries. If a performer is looking to gain experience onstage in between filmed roles, being in SAG-AFTRA can limit opportunities.
Unions function by controlling the labor available to an employer. When SAG-AFTRA and the major studios sit down to negotiate rates, health-care contributions, and other benefits, the union’s leverage comes from the numbers of its membership. If most top-tier talent belongs to SAG-AFTRA, then the guild can ask for higher wages. But the more actors that studios and other producers can employ for lower rates as nonunion or Financial Core performers, the less leverage SAG-AFTRA has. A mass amount of actors going to the Financial Core could create a “tragedy of the commons” situation; more resources being available to nonunion producers will mean fewer reasons to work with SAG-AFTRA at all, and wages will start to fall.
There are more immediate consequences for actors who go Financial Core, as well.
While pay and health care access may be the most visible benefits of union work, there are also safety requirements that producers must adhere to. Maximum hours on set are negotiated by SAG-AFTRA, as are meal breaks and rehearsals.
When the pandemic hit, it was SAG-AFTRA that had actors’ safety at top of mind when negotiating protocols that would allow producers to resume shooting. Whether or not those rules were 100% effective, they were in place because one group had the best interests of actors as its core mission. Nonunion producers are freer to demand more of a performer, often for less money.
While fee-paying nonmembers can still get their health care through SAG-AFTRA, they cannot participate in other union benefits like the SAG screening series, the conservatory’s classes, or the SAG Awards (Financial Core performers can neither win awards nor vote on them). Technically, Financial Core members may not even declare themselves “members” of SAG-AFTRA on their résumés, headshots, business cards, or websites—though enforcement of that rule is spotty at best.
Rejoining the union
It can be difficult for a Fi-Core actor to rejoin the union. SAG-AFTRA considers the decision to go Fi-Core to be permanent, and can require reinstatement fees, meetings with committees, and even written apologies. The union tends to frown upon the move. Also, most of the people involved in getting an actor work—casting directors, directors, and producers—are in unions of their own, and they may view a Fi-Core actor as a “scab.”
Often the reason an actor may opt to go Financial Core is because they are struggling to find work. The extra flexibility of pursuing nonunion gigs may mean the difference between making rent that month or not.
However, this choice is sometimes forced upon an actor after deciding to join the union at the wrong time. When a performer becomes SAG-eligible—meaning that they have accumulated the number of roles required to join the union—they do not have to join immediately. Many, in fact, remain in this intermediate position for years. An actor who is SAG-eligible is not a member of the union yet but can become one with a couple of phone calls and a down payment on the initiation fee. Union projects are more likely to consider them for casting, but nonunion projects can cast them without forcing the actor to choose between SAG-AFTRA and work.
The easiest way to avoid the SAG versus Fi-Core question is by making sure that when you do join the union, you not only qualify but have a large enough professional network (and a solid reel) to get cast.
The option of going Fi-Core and becoming a fee-paying nonmember is enshrined into law—it’s not going anywhere. But it’s much more than a move to make because of a lull in union work. To go Fi-Core is to make a major decision in your career, and that choice needs to come with deep consideration.