Union vs. Nonunion Voiceover Work: Everything You Need to Know

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Photo Source: Behind the scenes of “Big Mouth” Courtesy Brandon Hickman/Netflix

One of the biggest decisions of a voice actor’s career is whether or not to become part of the acting union, SAG-AFTRA. Is there a “right time” in your acting career to join? SAG-AFTRA carries a measure of prestige and weight for all actors, including those working in voiceover, but the landscape of voice acting has seen a massive shift in a very short time. The internet has made it easier to find high-quality voiceover equipment, professional-level classes, information on how to build your own sound booth, and job lists geared toward voice acting auditions. It’s now more viable than ever to have a full-time voice acting career while working remotely. 

Joining the union can clearly signal to potential businesses and peers that you’ve become a true professional. Unions also offer representation, assistance, and protection that isn’t available to nonunion actors. But some performers may find the step unnecessary, depending on where they are in their careers and what kind of work they’re doing. 

Here, we weigh the pros and cons of working union versus nonunion as a voice actor, and give you the information you need to make the decision that best fits your current circumstances and career goals.


Benefits of Joining a Union for Voice Actors

SAG-AFTRA has built its reputation on being able to provide a wide range of benefits for its members. To start, membership means gaining access to union health-care coverage; nonunion voice actors are considered working freelancers, and thus have to purchase their own health insurance. This is already a massive incentive. Also, considering how strenuous VO work can be on an actor’s vocal cords, it helps to have coverage that allows you to make regular visits to a doctor or a specialist who can help you maintain your vocal health.

Other major benefits of joining SAG-AFTRA as a voice actor include:

  • Established union pay rates that employers must meet
  • Life insurance
  • Time off from work
  • Retirement funds and pensions
  • Negotiating power when it comes to an employer’s contributions to all of the above

Nonunion voice actors have to figure out all of this for themselves, meaning that they have to divide their time out between artistic and business concerns. Union reps take care of those responsibilities for you, allowing you to concentrate on auditions, recording, and your craft as a voice actor.

Is the Pay Better for Union Voice Actors?

Voiuce actor in front of a microphoneSerhii Bobyk/Shutterstock

Yes, it is! SAG-AFTRA has established minimum rates for a wide range of voice acting jobs. SAG-AFTRA members are paid scale, meaning that a production company must pay the minimum rate allowed in their agreement with the union. This means you won’t get undercut for your work, and the pay rate is standardized. 

Union actors also have the opportunity to collect royalties. This means that an actor gets paid for the continued use of their performance in a piece of media. For example, if a commercial you recorded in one state is used in another state or is expanded nationally, and if royalties were negotiated, then you’ll receive an agreed-upon percentage for as long as the company uses that particular spot.

What Protections Does the Union Offer Voice Actors?

A union is there to fight for your well-being and protect you from potential mistreatment on the job. Not only will it make sure you’re paid on time for the amount agreed upon—it will also make sure you’re given sick leave as needed, as well as establish a maximum amount of time you can work in a day. 

Voice acting can be taxing work, and participating producers need to follow union guidelines to ensure that you’re not putting your voice in danger while recording. This is especially true in the realm of video games, in which recording sessions can involve multiple takes of different shouts, screams, grunts, growls, and roars. Performer safety was one of the main points of contention in 2016, when SAG-AFTRA voice actors went on an 11-month strike against some of the top video game publishers in the world. SAG-AFTRA was able to negotiate a high first-session bonus and a base pay, mandatory disclosure of the project’s nature and the actor’s role, and continued attention to mitigating vocal stress.

Things to Consider Before Joining SAG-AFTRA

SAG-AFTRA logo on a pillarAlex Millauer/Shutterstock

  • Application fees: SAG-AFTRA asks for an application fee and requires that you show proof that you’re a working actor. This process is taken very seriously, and if you’re unable to provide proof of work, you may have your application rejected. 
  • Dues: If you get accepted, then you’ll be a dues-paying member. After an initiation fee, a member must also contribute semi-annual dues, with an annual base pay of $227.42. You’ll also have to continue to demonstrate to the union that you’re still working in order to maintain your membership, typically by providing pay stubs from projects as part of the dues process. 
  • Minimum earnings: SAG-AFTRA requires its members to have earned, at minimum, $25,950 annually to be eligible for its health-care coverage.
  • Union-only gigs: As a unionized actor, you can only take union jobs, so you may be exchanging higher pay for fewer but higher-quality casting opportunities, with more seasoned actors going out for the same role. However, fewer casting calls can mean more time to focus on each individual audition.
  • Timing: Joining SAG-AFTRA too early could make it more difficult to get your voice acting career off the ground. Without enough credits on your résumé, you’ll have a more limited pool of casting calls to choose from than those who have more established careers.

What Does it Mean to Be Nonunion?

Effectively, being a nonunion voice actor means that you’re an independent contractor. While you don’t have to pay union dues, you also don’t receive any protections or benefits that a union can provide. This can make pay rates and payment dates much more sporadic. While it is possible for a nonunion actor to obtain an agent to help you find casting calls, everything else—from health-care to taxes to retirement—is left to you to figure out. And while you can negotiate your own contract with a client, many businesses that use nonunion talent stick to a flat rate that’s usually far lower than the minimum union rate

Also, business-minded nonunion clients will rarely agree to royalties. This can be especially difficult if a nonunion job results in a highly lucrative piece of media that continues to pull in revenue without you getting a cut. A famous example is the lawsuit over the yodeling jingle for Yahoo! The yodeler, Wylie Gustafson, a country singer-songwriter, originally accepted a one-time payment to do the jingle for what was, at the time, a regional commercial, only for the jingle to be used for the company’s entire now-iconic brand campaign. Yahoo! and Gustafson reached a settlement in 2002. 

Are There Benefits to Nonunion Voiceover Work?

Starting out as a nonunion actor is a great way to gain experience, as you’ll be choosing from a much wider selection of casting calls. If you’re looking to eventually join SAG-ATRA, then working nonunion is a fantastic training ground for building up your skills, honing your talent, and educating yourself in the business.

Do Nonunion Voiceover Artists Have Any Protections?

Voice actor in a studioAS photostudio/Shutterstock

Even as an independent contractor, you still receive some measure of protection in accordance with your state’s business laws. If you’re nonunion, research your state’s department of labor so you know what rights are available to you.  

Freelancers also have contractual protections. Even a simple contract is a legally binding agreement of payment for services rendered between the client and freelancer. 

A good contract should always include:

  • The names of all related parties and the purpose of the contract
  • An outline of the client’s and freelancer’s expectations
  • The freelancer’s fee and a timeline for service delivery
  • An agreement on intellectual property, confidentiality, disputes, liabilities, and contract termination

Remember that, no matter what, a client has no right to mistreat you. A contract is a tool that’s used to hold both parties to account.

Can I Work a Union Job If I'm Nonunion?

Yes, but there are limitations. A producer can cast a nonunion voice actor if they can prove that a particular actor meets role requirements that the union cannot provide at the time. However, under the Taft-Hartley Act, the union gives the actor a 30-day pass, allowing them to audition for union jobs. After 30 days, the actor is asked to join the union. If they pass on becoming a member, they are no longer allowed to audition for union work. 

If I'm in a Union, Can I Do Nonunion Work?

Voiceover artist standing in a recording studiocottonbro/Pexels

It is possible for a SAG-AFTRA actor to do nonunion work, but it remains a controversial practice to many dues-paying members. Union voiceover actors with Financial Core (Fi-Core) status can legally work nonunion jobs. While they retain some of the benefits of being a part of the union as a due-paying member, they lose some privileges, such as voting within SAG-AFTRA. This is a controversial topic in union performer circles, as many believe those who claim Fi-Core status to work nonunion jobs are not standing in solidarity with the union. Making this choice can hurt your reputation among your industry peers and could ultimately hurt a union’s ability to negotiate better terms with clients.