Should your child join a union? Are they eligible? Which union? Until recently, a professional working actor in LA was likely to belong to either SAG (Screen Actors Guild) or AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) or both. Professional stage actors belong to Equity.
Since Equity and stage work are outside the subject of this blog, we’ll leave that union largely aside for this conversation. In March of 2012, the other two unions merged to become one: SAG-AFTRA.
Previously, SAG was notoriously difficult to join, but one could simply write a check to become a member of AFTRA. That simple, open door option is no longer possible. Currently, the three routes to joining the merged union are either:
- Be hired for a principal role under a SAG-AFTRA contract (in other words, your kid doesn’t have to be a union member before they get a principal role—being cast will open the door to union membership. Thirty days after your child is “SAG-AFTRA eligible” due to being cast in a principal role on a SAG or AFTRA production, they become “SAG-AFTRA Must Join,” and cannot work on another union job until they become members. Getting into the union because you were hired for a principal role is sometimes known as being “Taft-Hartleyed,” which refers to that part of federal labor law. My daughter Dove got into the union this way.
- Background Vouchers: verified work for 3 days as a background performer/ extra in a SAG-AFTRA background role that is categorized as a union position. Some percentage of background positions on union projects are union, and some are not. If your kid is hired for one of the union slots, they will get one of the coveted vouchers. Three vouchers and they are eligible to join, though it is not required.
- Be a paid member for at least one year in a sister union (ACTRA, AEA, AGMA, or AGVA) and have worked and been paid for a principal role in that union at least once.
In other words, being cast in a SAG-AFTRA project is the path into the union; a single role can qualify them to join if it’s a principal one, and three roles can qualify them if they are smaller ones that fall under union designation and result in vouchers (in other words, not all background work is going to lead to eligibility). Joining the union is a requirement if your child accepts a principal role in a SAG-AFTRA project. However until they have a major role, joining is optional.
If your child becomes eligible but is not yet required to join the union, what factors might affect the decision of whether or not to join?
- The current national initiation fee is $3,000 if you are in NY or LA, (somewhat lower in smaller markets) with annual dues that begin at $198 plus 1.575% of covered earnings up to $500,000. So if your kid is still just getting smaller roles, this may not make financial sense.
- Joining too early—when your child doesn’t have the experience to compete against more seasoned kids—may be a mistake because belonging to the union can keep them from gaining experience and building a resume through easier, non-union channels. If this is a concern, then don’t join until it’s required. Once they join, there is no doing non-union gigs, and no going back.
- Pension and Healthcare. While it may feel a little early to think about a pension, health insurance can be an attractive piece of union membership. We saved money and Dove received better coverage switching to union health insurance. However, simply joining the union does not automatically qualify your child for the healthcare benefit: they need to have worked a certain number of hours in the preceding calendar year before becoming eligible, and must continue to work a minimum number of hours each year to continue to qualify. Check out the SAG Pension and Healthcare website, and the AFTRA Health and Retirement website, at sagph.org, and www.aftrahr.com for current details.
- There are many other benefits to joining the union, including higher pay, opportunity for residuals instead of a one-time buyout, access to educational workshops and contracts to cover student and non-union films, business seminars, access to casting directors, health and human services, discounts, and more.
Joining the union is a big milestone, and to many it signifies recognition as a professional. In weighing the pros and cons of joining the union before your child is required to, however, it may be wiser to wait until either they must, or until they have worked enough to make the healthcare option viable. Initiation fees are a large sum of money, and belonging to a union can cut off important opportunities for a non-union performer to get work. In other words: just because your child can join, doesn’t mean they should.
The merger itself has resulted in some amount of confusion, and their historical separation has left some pieces still separate, even after the merger. For example, while your child will be a member of SAG-AFTRA if they join the union, each project they work on will either be SAG or AFTRA still. Union members may be SAG-AFTRA, but projects are currently still one or the other. Health insurance under the unions is also still separate, at least at the time of this writing—your kid would be covered under either SAG or AFTRA insurance (usually whichever union they have qualified first under). For example, Dove qualified to be covered under both SAG and AFTRA for health insurance in the first year she was qualified for coverage at all, but because she qualified first with AFTRA, that was the insurance we had to go with.
A few myths about SAG-AFTRA membership:
- Being a union member will help land an agent (No, it will not. Talent and a good resume will, however).
- Being a union member will help your child get bigger roles (Yes, most of the best roles are union only. However if you don’t have the talent and experience to get those roles, belonging to the union will not make a difference).
- Being a union member will make it easier to get roles in general (actually, it can be more difficult, as your kid is now competing against professionals).
I hope this helped clarify what can be a very confusing subject. What questions do you still have about unions and your child actor? Let me know in the comments below.
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