Actors’ unions in the United States help working actors negotiate contracts, establish fair pay rates, and access health benefits. Since most actors are professional freelancers moving from gig to gig, acting unions like SAG-AFTRA and Equity strive to establish workplace standards across all sets where union actors work. These unions also help actors build dependable careers in a competitive, unpredictable industry.
Entertainment is a big business that needs performers to function. Actors’ unions leverage that fact to bargain for higher pay, better benefits, and a better quality of life for people who pursue an acting career. Let’s take a deeper look at how acting unions work—and how you can make the most out of union membership.
An actors’ union is a type of labor union that represents the interests of actors working in the film, television, and theater industries. What’s a labor union, you ask? In brief, it’s an association of workers in a particular industry or company that is formed to improve pay, benefits, and working conditions. When a workplace is unionized, the managers must negotiate with elected union leaders or staff officials every few years to create an employment contract. Contracts typically include minimum payment rates, benefits, time off, maximum working hours, and other stipulations designed to benefit workers.
In film and television, the “management” that actors unions negotiate with are producers and entertainment company executives. In theater, actors unions negotiate with producers, theater owners, and managing directors. Essentially, actors unions negotiate with the people who have the checkbook, so that actors can focus on their creative work.
Actors need unions to create a standard of professionalism no matter where they get hired. “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,” explains SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris.
The demands of being a professional actor are unique. Requirements vary wildly depending on the project. Landing a single job can involve auditions, callbacks, dance calls, screen tests, chemistry reads—in short, the process of getting hired is unlike any other industry. There are also many actors looking for work. To pay the bills, some actors will take any job that comes their way, regardless of the working conditions. Producers can exploit that pressure to manipulate actors to accept unsafe working conditions or low pay.
“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.”
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. Actors are trained to embrace this discomfort, but it can still be unsettling and disorienting.
Unions use their collective bargaining power to ensure career elements like contracts, working conditions, and employee rights are created in the performer’s best interest. This includes things like:
- Contract negotiations: 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.
- Insurance and education: Unions provide health care options and insurance. Labor unions also curate educational programming for their members including workshops, webinars, and conferences or conventions.
- Tools of trade: At union offices, members can access resources like meeting rooms, audition recording studios, and camera labs.
- Legal assistance: Unions provide legal counsel and representation to members when an employer breaches a labor contract. Unions also advocate for members and investigate claims of harassment and abuse.
- Lobbying efforts: Unions lobby for legislation that benefits their members. For example, Equity led the charge in lobbying for changes to the recent tax law that removed itemized deductions, increasing taxes for performers. SAG-AFTRA has campaigned for legislation that bans technology that repurposes or animates an actor’s likeness, often referred to as a “deepfake.”
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. Its headquarters in Times Square, but it also has offices in Orlando, 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.
To increase their bargaining power, actors’ unions sometimes partner with other prominent entertainment industry labor organizations. These include:
- Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4As): This is a federation of unions and guilds for actors. The president of the 4As is Gabrielle Carteris, who is also the president of SAG-AFTRA.
- The Dramatists Guild of America: This professional organization advocates for playwrights, composers, and lyricists.
- The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE): This labor union represents artisans, craftspeople, technicians, and operators in film, television, and live productions.
- Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC): This union represents choreographers and directors for live entertainment.
- The Writers Guild of America (WGA): This labor union represents writers for film and television.
Union status is simply a note—usually on your acting résumé or audition submission—stating whether or not you belong to any acting unions. Producers need to know your union status before hiring you for an acting job so they can create accurate budgets for their projects. If their project is non-union, they also cannot hire union actors.
An essential rule that acting unions expect members to follow is declining work on non-union projects. SAG-AFTRA calls this rule Global Rule One. Actors’ unions aim to create an environment where producers are forced to comply with union standards because they can’t find actors who will work for anything less than a union contract. If union actors work non-union jobs, they weaken the unions’ bargaining power.
Because union eligibility is sometimes based on work experience, union status is a little more complicated than just “union” or “non-union.” Common union statuses are:
- SAG-AFTRA: Simply listing “SAG-AFTRA” as your union status tells employers that you are an active member of the union.
- SAG-AFTRA Eligible: After you land your first SAG-AFTRA union role, or complete three days of background work, you become SAG-Eligible. At any moment, you can become a union member by paying the initiation fee.
- SAG-AFTRA OK-30: After becoming SAG-AFTRA Eligible, you can work for 30 days on other SAG-AFTRA sets without joining the union.
- SAG-AFTRA Must Join: The status for actors whose OK-30 status has expired. They “Must Join” SAG-AFTRA before accepting another union job.
- Equity (AEA): Listing “Equity” or “AEA” as your union status tells employers that you are an active member of the union.
- Equity Member Candidate (EMC): Equity permits actors to credit theatrical work in an Equity theatre towards eventual membership in Equity. Eligibility requires a minimum of 25 weeks of EMC work at participating Equity theatres.
There is one other union status, but it is highly controversial: Financial Core. Commonly called “Fi-Core,” this is the status of a union actor who resigns their union membership but—through a labor law loophole—is permitted to continue working on union job sites. Fi-Core actors must pay dues to the union to support its core functions, but are classified as “fees paying non-members.” Since union rules like SAG-AFTRA’s Global Rule One only apply to union members, Fi-Core actors can technically accept both union and non-union jobs. This is an incredibly risky move, however, and should not be made lightly.
You should join an actors’ union if you want the safety net of healthcare access and higher pay rates affiliated with union acting work. In American acting culture, gaining union membership is seen as a rite of passage for working actors. In general, the entertainment industry distinguishes whether an actor is a “professional” based on their union affiliation. Further, union membership gives you access to resources when auditioning for gigs—whether it’s preferential treatment or enhanced facilities for taped auditions.
Many actors find that they become eligible for higher-paying jobs because of union exposure, accommodations, and resources. Some resist joining for as long as possible to gain as much acting experience as possible before they compete with seasoned union actors for jobs.
To join an acting union, you must work a certain number of hours on a union set or land a major role in a production that is operating under 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.
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. Both SAG-AFTRA and Equity are members of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (the Four A’s) and grant membership to members of other Four A unions. So, if you are an Equity member and land a role in a SAG-AFTRA film, you can join SAG-AFTRA without any other work requirements.
Once you are eligible to join an acting union, you must complete an application form and pay an initiation fee. To begin the application process, SAG-AFTRA candidates email their employment details to SAG-AFTRA’s employment verification office. Equity candidates email the Equity membership office to request an application. Each union will notify you of the required initiation fee amount. When your application is approved and your fees paid, the union mails you a membership card.
Unions charge a one-time initiation fee, annual dues, and a percentage of yearly earnings. For instance, SAG-AFTRA charges a national initiation fee of $3,000. Annual dues are $222.96. 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 dues scale, as do actors in some small markets like Houston or Philadelphia.
Equity’s initiation fee is currently $1,700 and will increase to $1,800 in 2022. Annual dues are $176. Working dues are 2.5% of gross earnings and are collected through weekly paychecks (per diem not included). Dues can fluctuate based on membership votes; Equity’s membership overwhelmingly approved an increase in dues in 2017.
Unions offer actors best-interest representatives when needed, alongside educational and professional resources. Actor’s unions also schedule exclusive workshops for members and negotiate discounts with service providers actors use. Typical benefits include tax assistance, cell phone discounts, and lowered rates on casting website subscriptions.
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. When thinking about union leadership, remember that leadership could include you! Both SAG-AFTRA and Equity are governed by their members. There are regional boards, local advisory positions, or committee seats you can run for to make a difference for actors in your union.
Voting isn’t just about leadership, either. Each year SAG-AFTRA members vote for the winners of the SAG awards. To ensure that voters make educated choices, SAG-AFTRA negotiates free viewings of nominated films and television shows. So when SAG-AFTRA actors watch the best new films and television shows, they are being good union members. It’s tough work, but someone has to do it.
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