It can be confusing for non-union actors navigating the process of joining SAG-AFTRA. Usually, there's no co-worker at the next desk to bounce questions and concerns off of. Some of us give a “wait and see” response when asked for advice from younger performers just starting out with a dream of working as an actor in high-profile projects.
We know how difficult it can be to build a reel. Non-union productions are graced with a lower bar for entry and that can be a great way for anyone at any skill level to build that experience. Non-union projects give those with ambition and raw talent opportunities to make artistic and human mistakes in student and independent projects. Non-union performers building their reel through non-union student and low-budget film work may help them to create a track record for casting directors to refer to for union roles later on. However, non-union commercial work can limit a performer's ability to be considered by casting directors for union commercials which have residuals and benefits.
For many other non-union actors, the more pressing question is how affordable is the union initiation fee? When is that big break even going to pay? The answer for this can be a bit more complicated. Joining at the Philadelphia Local rate is about half the national initiation fee, which allows work in Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware, and even extends into the Washington-Mid Atlantic Local. That makes it easier to decide to join sooner rather than later with this option, and for those who join at the regional rate but work in New York and Los Angeles, an additional fee would apply prior to securing that work.
These conversations with non-union actors are not just about the perceived status and accompanying prestige that being a card-carrying actor possesses. Basic collective contract stipulations are essentially denied to the vast majority of workers in this society, and we know that non-union actors on the sets we work on are paid less and work more hours before any overtime pay kicks in for them.
But, if a CEO is entitled to an employment contract, why not also us, the workers?
As actors, we are all workers in the entertainment industry and a tangible benefit of union membership is the sense of security that comes with a collective bargaining agreement. If a union background actor is able to work enough hours in a calendar year, we can qualify for health and retirement benefits that are not available to our non-union friends. Safety and sanitary standards are also written into SAG-AFTRA contracts and easily referenced when questions arise, and the union regularly sends trained representatives out into the field to connect with productions on our behalf. We may not have a co-worker at a nearby desk, but we are not alone on set, and this security is based on the strength of our total membership.
The decision to join however, is always an individual one and the advice we each volunteer can be confusing and, at times, contradictory. The benefits to that potential new member, our union and society at large are better when we all take an active part to provide sound advice. Access to a basic orientation to the union and the opportunity to participate and learn more about the business makes a stronger union and society.
Outlining the benefits that are personal and important to you can help the non-union actor make their decision with informed and real data.
By SAG-AFTRA Philadelphia Local member David Woo for the SAG-AFTRA Philadelphia Local 2020 spring newsletter.