Union vs. Non-union in a 'RTW' State

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Union vs. Non-Union in a ‘Right-to-Work’ State?

Many potential members have asked why they should join SAG-AFTRA in “right-to-work” states. Union membership provides many benefits and a level of recognition that does not exist for pre-members. Several myths about SAG-AFTRA and union membership are demolished in the following article. We hope that the material helps you better understand the true value of membership and gives you a few talking points to help you convince non-union actors you encounter on sets to join us in SAG-AFTRA.

Ed. Notes: Much of the following information was taken from the brochure “Top 10 Myths about Being a Union Actor in Texas.”
Now is a good time to join SAG-AFTRA. The local initiation fee will increase to $900 on April 16. If you know of anyone who is considering joining, encourage her or him to contact Eileen Neel at eileen.neel@sagaftra.org for more information.

MYTH: “Unions are losing membership”
Not SAG-AFTRA!
FACT: SAG-AFTRA membership is at its highest level EVER. The membership in Louisiana and Mississippi is growing, too.
FACT: Prior to SAG-AFTRA, actors worked unrestricted hours on films with no required meal breaks. Actors often worked under seven-year contracts that could not be broken and the actors could not even choose the roles they played. Producers could tell actors who to marry, what professional names they must use, and even what morals and political opinions they could hold. Can you imagine living your life as an actor this way? Thanks to SAG-AFTRA, you do not!
FACT: There is power in numbers. The more union members we have, the more union work we will get. The collective strength of performers working together can change a market. After all, performers who banded together in 1933 changed the market in Hollywood forever when they formed SAG.

MYTH: “Unions do not matter in a ‘right-to-work’ state.”
Yes, they do!
FACT: Unions bargain for excellent pay and working conditions with producers in TV, film, commercials, corporate/educational productions, and new media for all actors, setting the industry standard in every state.
FACT: The entertainment unions are an integral part of the industry all over the country. SAG-AFTRA helped pass the film incentive legislation that is currently bringing work to Louisiana and other states. Members and staff are involved in numerous industry organizations to promote the union.
FACT: Unions have a longstanding practice of fighting discrimination and increasing employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, women, seniors and performers of color.
FACT: Unions fight on behalf of performers for laws on talent agency regulations, child labor laws and digital theft.
FACT: Union actors respect themselves enough to join an organization that respects and supports them as actors, regardless of state law.
FACT: SAG-AFTRA was created by industry professionals for industry professionals, and its existence is vitally important for industry professionals everywhere.

MYTH: “Industry professionals do not care if I am in the union.”
Yes, they do!
FACT: Having SAG-AFTRA on your resume can be a deciding factor when it comes to booking work because casting directors, directors and producers immediately recognize your status as a professional. Read what these industry professionals have to say:

“I work very hard and take my career very seriously. When I see ‘[SAG-AFTRA]’ on a resume, I know I am meeting a like-minded artist who continues to invest in their career and treats their acting as a full-time profession rather than a part-time hobby.”
Beth Sepko, Casting Director
“When sitting in the audition room, it does mean something when I turn over the headshot to the resume behind and find that they’re [SAG-AFTRA]. Not so much if they list that they’re only [SAG-AFTRA] eligible.”
Dan Millican, Producer/Director
“Every day, I receive phone calls from actors looking for a manager or agent, and my initial response is always the same: ‘Are you a member of [SAG-AFTRA]?’ I ask this because [SAG-AFTRA] is a union that only represents professional talent, and being a member tells me that the actor that I am talking with is serious about their career.”
Rick McKiddy, Chain Reaction Management

FACT: Being a union member means you are a professional actor. You have the card to prove it!
FACT: SAG-AFTRA on your resume lends credibility and, therefore, is a marketing tool — for members only!

MYTH: “As a union member, I am not allowed to audition for non-union work.”
Wrong!
FACT: You ARE allowed to audition for non-union work. However, you cannot work without a union contract. Audition. Get the part. You are likely to stand out in a non-union crowd. Once you are offered the role, explain that you cannot do the role unless it is a union job. Let the producers know that going union is not nearly as complicated or expensive as they might imagine. Our staff is ready to help with the paperwork.
FACT: You are ENCOURAGED to audition for non-union work because:

  1. Non-union producers get a chance to see amazing talent they wouldn’t otherwise see.
  2. When you land that job and get a union contract, you turn that non-union production.
  3. You can help organize more work by sharing information about non-union producers or companies with union staff so they can inform them about our contracts.

MYTH: "Non-union scale is the same as union scale.”
Are you kidding?
FACT: There’s no such thing as “non-union scale.” “Scale” is the result of SAG-AFTRA’s hard-fought negotiations on behalf of ALL performers. Additionally, scale is not scale unless it includes pension and health payments and a contract of protections. Without the unions, scale would be a myth.
Here is something more to think about:
An actor may book $20,000 worth of non-union jobs in a year, but, if those producers do not pay them, treat them poorly on the set, or misuse their image or they get injured, they will not have a leg to stand on working without a contract.
By contrast, an actor who earns $20,000 a year under union contracts gets her or his money on time, a pension credit, legal support and many other protections. Also, an actor who earns $15,000 or more a year on union jobs qualifies for health benefits — excellent health benefits!

MYTH: “I’d make more money if I were non-union.”
Highly doubtful!
FACT: Union jobs provide lucrative financial gains that non-union jobs do not. Want solid proof? A legacy SAG advertiser attempted to produce three national non-union commercials, paying buyouts to the performers several years ago. The buy-out paid $1,000. After legacy SAG intervened, the union contract paid over $16,000! Would you rather be bought out or paid up?
FACT: Non-union actors may get some exposure for doing non-union low-budget films and webisodes, but these productions do little or nothing for their pocketbook. Without a contract, those actors will not see a dime if that non-union project becomes a successful moneymaking film.
FACT: You deserve to make money as an actor. Typically, the amount of money a production spends on acting talent is less than 5 percent of the production budget, which does not even include dollars for advertising, distribution, etc. As the months and years go by and producers continue to make money off of your image, you should, too.

MYTH: “I can work ‘off the card’ — just this once.”
Not without consequences!
FACT: Working “off the card” means doing non-union work. It also means you are not protected if something goes wrong on that production or if you do not receive pay in a timely manner — or at all.
FACT: You could jeopardize future jobs. For example, if you work a non-union buyout for a local car dealership, then you cannot book a future national union spot, like Ford, because you would violate exclusivity with the non-union job.
FACT: You endanger your union standing. When you became a member, you promised to abide by Global Rule One: “No member shall work as a performer for any producer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the union which is in full force and effect.” This provision applies worldwide. Rules have been established by members to protect members. Violating these rules can result in disciplinary action.
FACT: People talk. When you work “off the card,” you tarnish not only your reputation, but also that of your union. Unions are only as strong as their members. In order to maintain industry standards, it is vital that we all work together. Any performer working non-union is lowering the standards for themselves and everyone else. So, why would you even want to work “off the card”?

MYTH: “Union actors are better actors.”
This is not a myth: It is absolutely TRUE!
You are better because:
FACT: Union actors uphold the industry standards for all performers.
FACT: Union actors are experienced professionals who know how to act on set.
FACT: When you are a union actor in a “right-to-work” state, it shows you are invested in your career and expect professional industry standards on every job.
FACT: You are a member because you enjoy all of the financial, professional and social benefits you receive from being in SAG-AFTRA.
FACT: You respect your craft and the business.

FACT: You are a part of a member-driven organization whose sole purpose is to support you!