Rule One is the primary directive in the constitutions of the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and Actors' Equity Association. Though each union has its own wording, this is how SAG states Rule One: "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 other words, a union member may not work without a union contract if his or her union has jurisdiction and has negotiated basic agreements in that field.
Contracts and salaries may vary depending on theatre size, budget, purpose, or type of audience, but if you are a union member and the union has organized the market, you can't perform without a union contract. This is true no matter how small the venue. And it is as valid in SAG and AFTRA as it is in Equity. Even in performance areas where you don't get paid, a union actor still has to work under a union contract. One must check.
You and you alone—not your agent or manager—are responsible for making sure you're not in violation of Rule One. Sometimes, however, as with voiceover narration for books on tape, there isn't any applicable union-negotiated contract and Rule One does not apply. If you are unsure of a project's status, it's your obligation to call the appropriate union to see whether your producer is a signatory, meaning he or she has signed a contract and agreed to all the applicable union mandates. Make it a habit. If a nonunion production wants you, ask the producer to do the signatory paperwork. The unions go out of their way to make the process easy.
As new media spawns new jobs for actors, there will invariably be lag time between the creation of jobs and the unions gaining jurisdiction and negotiating basic minimums for their members in emerging fields. This is the crux of the current difficult negotiations between producers and writers. Getting producers to agree to allow an actors' union to negotiate salary minimums in a new performance area is how jurisdiction is gained. Strikes are difficult for all involved, but they're deemed necessary when a new union jurisdiction or members' rights need to be established or affirmed. Members support their union during work stoppages by picketing, and they support their union during normal times by abiding by the contracts those strikes addressed. When a member violates Rule One, he or she becomes the weak link in a chain that was forged by hard negotiations and communal commitment.
Two special scenarios bear mentioning. American Equity has a reciprocal agreement with Canadian Equity that allows its members to work under Canadian union contracts and vice versa. Though minimums and working conditions are different, concessions are made to protect each group of nationals. The other scenario is SAG's 2001 establishment of Global Rule One, which strongly advocates that any SAG member performing outside the United States demand a SAG contract. This applies to all SAG work, including commercials, television, and films. Prior to 2001, SAG turned a blind eye to members violating Rule One outside the United States. This left the preponderance of actors working abroad without health and retirement contributions, residuals, or safe working conditions.
Unions have the ability to discipline members who ignore Rule One and on occasion do punish them. You may be lectured, fined, or have your membership revoked. A violation of Rule One weakens the safeguards for everyone. It means that not only will you not receive a contribution to your pension or your family's insurance, but you are responsible for eroding the financial solvency of an organization that protects others.