Unions 101: Everything You Need to Know

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For actors in the United States, labor unions are a big deal. Because most performers are professional freelancers moving from gig to gig, unions create industry cohesion and stability in a field that is competitive and unpredictable by nature. Unions aim to create opportunities, enforce working standards by banding actors together as one unified force with unified expectations, and strive to give actors dignified and professional lives in a society that inherently undervalues their economic contributions.

Entertainment is a big business that impacts many other commercial sectors locally and nationally. And entertainment can’t happen without performers. Unions aim to leverage that fact to bargain for higher pay, better benefits, and a greater quality of life for people who decide to make a career of acting. 

Below, Backstage tells you what you need to know about labor unions. 


What is a labor union?

A labor union is a coalition of workers in a particular industry, field, or workplace who utilize coordinated activism and civil disobedience to challenge the management or financial structures of their employer. 

When a workplace is unionized, that means the managers must negotiate with elected union leaders or staff officials every few years to create the terms of an employment contract. Contracts can include minimum payment rates, benefits, time off, and other stipulations designed to benefit workers. 

Most unions are national organizations divided into chapters that represent specific regions or workplaces. Even if a union does not have bargaining power with an employer, unions can still organize activities and pressure employers to particular standards. 

Because the United States is a capitalist society, profits and productivity are valued as terms of success. Thus, individuals with wealth are given the power to make decisions that impact those of lower classes. Unions aim to upend power dynamics in a capitalist structure to give workers equal power and prevent laborers from being manipulated by commercial demands. If a manager protects profits, unions protect workers. 

And while employees can’t get paid without profits, companies can’t make profits without employees. Thus, negotiations happen between both parties to find a middle ground and make concessions. 

What is a craft union?

A craft union is a labor union that focuses on workers who have a specific trait or specialty. 

Labor organizations that represent artists are classified as craft unions. 

Why do actors need unions?

Unions strive to create a standard of professionalism as a foundation of expectations no matter where or how an actor gets hired.

The demands of being a professional actor are singular. Within the industry, employment demands differ wildly and vary depending on the project: auditions, callbacks, dance calls, screen tests, chemistry reads—the process of getting hired for an acting job is unlike any other. 

Acting is also inherently a vulnerable and competitive profession. The job is sensitive because actors are required to perform actions that their characters would do, but that the actor wouldn’t, for example. Actors are trained to embrace this discomfort, but it can still be unsettling and disorienting. 

In addition to the actual work when you make it on set, as we all know, getting the gigs in the first place is a competitive task. There are many actors out there, and to pay their bills, several of those actors will take any job that comes their way. With that power dynamic working to their advantage, producers can manipulate these circumstances knowing that actors might feel vulnerable and grateful just to have a job. 

“When actors are unified, their contributions to the creative process can be leveraged to enhance their authority and autonomy in rooms that have clear hierarchies.”

Here’s a quick example: If a director wants to rehearse an extra 30 minutes past the designated end time, some actors might not challenge the decision because, at the end of the day, it’s the actor who will have to perform in front of an audience of strangers in a theater or on a screen. Vulnerability creates a drive to rehearse as much as possible. However, that teeny time extension could cause an actor to miss a bus, be late to pick up their child, or miss an appointment. 

Or, here’s another example: Let’s imagine you’re an actor at a film shoot. You’re near the end of the workday, and there’s one more scene to finish. The director decides to add a kiss to the scene that was not written into the script. This scene is the last to be shot after a long, exhausting day. Your fellow actors and the crew are tired and want to go home. The situation now carries a lot of pressure for an actor to do something they might be uncomfortable with and haven’t prepared for. 

It’s easy to see how actors can easily be put into unfair situations. Cases of conflict could be much more severe, of course, but you see how an actor might be a unique target for workplace manipulation. However, when actors are unified, their contributions to the creative process can be leveraged to enhance their authority and autonomy in rooms that have clear hierarchies. This dynamic, unions argue, allows actors to advocate for dignified expectations as workers. 

“Our work is creative, and being a part of the union empowers us to be able to focus on the work without having to police everything around us,” SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris told Backstage. “Not only do we have the support of 160,000 of our fellow media artists, our union and its staff are there for us enforcing contract provisions, monitoring our working conditions, and assisting with work-related issues such as harassment, discrimination, and workers’ compensation claims.”

What are the actor unions in the United States?

The two main actor unions in the United States are the Actors’ Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA.

  • Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) represents stage actors and stage managers. With headquarters in Times Square, it also has offices in Orlando, Florida; Chicago; and Los Angeles. The union has roughly 51,000 members. 
  • Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) represents screen, voiceover, and media talent. Headquartered in Los Angeles, it also has an office in New York City and local chapters around the country. This union has roughly 160,000 members. AFTRA merged with SAG in 2012. 

For actors, who is “management”?

Actors commission talent agents and managers as representation to put them forward for jobs and properly represent their best interests once those jobs are secured.

When it comes to putting the best foot forward in terms of building a career in entertainment, actors have the potential to receive a bit of help in the form of their agent, their manager, or their PR representative. 

Stage managers, despite their title, are not “management.” After all, stage managers and stage actors are in the same labor union for a reason! Actors and stage managers are on the ground together and experience the same working conditions. 

In film, the “management” that SAG-AFTRA negotiates with are producers and entertainment company executives. In theater, Equity negotiates with producers, theater owners, and managing directors. Essentially, unions negotiate with the people who have the checkbook.  

What do unions do?

Unions use their collective bargaining power to ensure career elements like payment, working conditions, and employee rights are created in the best interest of the performer. 

Unions have a hand in many parts of an industry professional’s career. Here are just a few:

  • Unions negotiate contracts with employers, outlining specific terms that benefit their members and other relevant employees at a specific workplace. For actors, these contracts might outline audition, rehearsal, performance, and press stipulations. 
  • Unions provide health care options and insurance. Labor unions also curate educational programming for their members including workshops, webinars, and conferences or conventions. 
  • If an employer breaches a labor contract, unions will provide legal counsel and representation to impacted members. Also, unions will advocate for members and investigate claims of harassment and abuse. 
  • Unions lobby for legislation. For example, Equity has led the charge in lobbying for changes to the recent tax law that removed itemized deductions, increasing taxes for performers. SAG-AFTRA has led campaigns to create legislation against technology that repurposes or animates an actor’s likeness, also known as “deepfake” technology. 
  • At union offices, members can access resources like meeting rooms, audition recording studios, and camera labs. 

How are labor unions organized?

Unions are led by elected leadership and hired staff. 

Elected leaders are union members who volunteer for national executive roles like the president or vice president, and regional positions like chairs of local chapters. From council members to treasurers, many positions are electable. In both actors’ unions, some slates act like political parties, where candidates for elected positions can unify under a common agenda or endorse allies for union office. 

Hired staff receive a salary from the union and help manage the union’s operations and enforce labor contracts. Both unions have an appointed executive director who works with the elected president to lead the cause and make things happen. 

How do I join a union?

To join an actors’ labor union, you have to work a certain number of hours as an actor or land a major commercial gig utilizing union contracts. 

To join Equity, one can enroll in the Equity Membership Candidate Program (EMC), which allows actors to accrue “Equity points” when gigging at a theater with a union contract. After 25 weeks of work at Equity theaters, actors can apply for membership. Another way to join Equity is to get cast in a production that mandates a union actor plays the role. Additionally, members of certain partner labor organizations like SAG-AFTRA are granted automatic membership. 

To join SAG-AFTRA, one must have proof of employment as a principal role, or evidence of three days of work as a background actor. SAG-AFTRA also grants memberships to those associated with sibling organizations. 


How much does it cost to be in a union?

Unions charge a one-time initiation fee, annual dues, and a percentage of yearly earnings.

SAG-AFTRA charges a national initiation fee of $3,000. Annual dues are $218.60. Working dues are calculated at 1.575% of earnings over $500,000. Fees may vary depending on the state and sector. For example, broadcasters have a different expense scale. 

Equity’s initiation fee is currently $1,700 and will increase to $1,800 in 2022. Annual dues are $174. By 2021, annual dues will increase by two dollars. Working dues are 2.5% of gross earnings and are collected through weekly paychecks (per diem not included). 

Hikes in dues costs can fluctuate and are determined via membership vote. Equity’s membership overwhelmingly approved an increase in dues in 2017. 

What is expected of union members?

Union members are expected to behave professionally per the terms outlined in the contract negotiated on their behalf.

Labor organizers convince workplaces to go union by making an argument that union actors are the best workers available and are thus worth the investment. If union actors don’t live up to those standards, the pitch of union recruitment is undermined. 

An essential rule unions expect members to follow is declining and avoiding working on nonunion projects. SAG-AFTRA calls that rule Global Rule One. Actors’ unions aim to create an environment where producers are forced to unionize because they can’t find actors who will gig for anything less than a union contract. If union actors work nonunion jobs, they create a breach in that approach, labor leaders argue. 

Have questions about unions that need firsthand answers? Post them to the Backstage forums and get the conversation started!

What are some specific terms unions use?

Terms like “stage name” and “scabbing” are part of the unique vernacular of unions.

“Scabbing” is a term designed to incite a visceral reaction. In union culture, the term is used to label union members who work on nonunion contracts or are working for companies or producers that the union is striking against. Sometimes, to avoid being caught working on a nonunion project, actors will list an alternative name in credits or a playbill so that their union name isn’t registered with a nonunion project.

By reporting various union-related campaigns, Backstage has confirmed with SAG-AFTRA and Equity that both bodies monitor for members who accept nonunion work. Both unions publicly warn of consequences. Further, unions have confirmed to Backstage that they accept information from other union members when they see other union actors “scabbing” or using stage names. 

In the event of a strike, unions have confirmed they will monitor nonunion actors who cross the picket line. 

“If you give a producer an opportunity to pay you less, they will,” Lori Hunt, executive director of SAG-AFTRA’s Commercials and Corporate, Educational and Non-Broadcast Contracts told Backstage in 2019. “You don’t build a career by undercutting yourself and your fellow actors—you value yourself and [don’t] cross the picket line.”

Why is being a union actor such a big deal?

In American acting culture, gaining union membership is seen as a rite of passage because it signifies a certification of professionalism. 

The entertainment industry distinguishes whether one is classified as a professional actor according to their union affiliation. 

Because acting gigs are competitive and union dues are sizable for a traditionally low-paying field, it can feel like an achievement to be in a position where one can join the union and afford the costs. 

Further, union membership allows certain luxuries and resources when auditioning for gigs—whether it’s preferential treatment or enhanced facilities for taped auditions. Therefore, many actors find that they become eligible for higher-paying gigs because of union exposure, accommodations, and resources. 

How can I utilize a union?

Among many things, unions offer actors best-interest representatives when needed, comprehensive contracts, and educational or professional resources.

  • First and foremost, actors can utilize unions as allies and counselors. If an actor is concerned about something on set or in a rehearsal hall, they can call their union and request a perspective or report an impropriety. Unions also designate representatives and deputies on projects that actors can utilize.
  • Actors can reference union contracts and campaigns to be kept up to date on best practices in the industry. 
  • Members can also take advantage of educational opportunities, training, and resources that are offered to union actors. 

What is a union deputy?

A union deputy is the liaison between an actor looking for the union’s help and the production they’re working for.

A deputy is an elected union member who acts as an independent representative for actors looking to petition or express concerns they’re uncomfortable bringing to on-set management. After the actor calls for assistance, the deputy would then inform the union of concerns and advocate on behalf of the union actors to the producer. 

What should I consider if I live outside of a major market for actors?

Consider your access to audition opportunities and your financial status to determine if joining the union is the right decision for you both professionally and economically.

If an actor lives in New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, where there are audition opportunities and union offices, and the entertainment industry is seen as an economic driver, union membership has apparent advantages. But what about union actors who live in other regions in the country, where there are fewer professional opportunities?

Engaging members all over the country has been a challenge for both unions. Equity has been deliberate in its attempts to recruit and organize outside of its major markets. SAG-AFTRA has lobbied for the protection and continuation of entertainment tax credits that keep films and television shows going to states other than New York and California. Both unions have utilized webinars and digital offerings as a way to engage members from far away. 

In scarce entertainment markets, some actors might be reluctant to join a union because of fear that regional employers won’t have the profits to afford a union’s payment demands. Unions rely on regional chapters and liaisons to keep morale high outside of the nation’s busiest entertainment hubs. 

How do I get more involved with my union if I’m already a member?

Voting in union elections is the best way to get involved. Visit your union’s website for information on upcoming elections or votes, as well as seminars, workshops, and a list of resources available to you.

Perhaps the essential way for actors to engage with their union is to vote in union elections. Unions use membership votes to approve contracts, dues increases, and many other policy matters. And, of course, elections determine a union’s leadership and its vision. Actors’ unions have a sad reputation for low voter turnout. In August 2019, SAG-AFTRA saw only 21% of eligible members vote in its leadership election. In 2018, Equity saw 18% of voting-eligible members participate in its leadership elections. In a recent election to approve a pay increase for Broadway actors, Equity had only roughly 27% of relevant members cast ballots. By taking the time to research issues—like reading about them here on Backstage—and voting, union members can play a significant role in the direction their labor union takes in the years to come.

What are other unions prominent in show business?

The 4As, the Dramatists Guild of America, IATSE, SDC, and the WGA.

  • Associated Actors and Artistes of America (the 4As) is a federation of unions and guilds for actors. The president of the 4As is Gabrielle Carteris, who’s also the president of SAG-AFTRA. 
  • The Dramatists Guild of America is a professional organization advocating for playwrights, composers, and lyricists. 
  • The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) represents artisans, craftspeople, technicians, and operators in film, television, and live productions. 
  • Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) represents choreographers and directors for live entertainment. 
  • The Writers Guild of America (WGA) represents writers for film and television. 

Keep up to date with all things union right here on Backstage.

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