Saturday, September 20, 2008

You can't be a little pregnant; either you are or you're not. It's kind of that way with union status.

I just received an e-mail from an actor who posed a series of important questions about exactly what it means to be a member of one of the actor unions, in this case, specifically AFTRA, and, specifically, what kinds of work he could and could not accept. He didn't say, but I take it that his membership is fairly new. He didn't say why he joined AFTRA at this particular time, but his concerns are valid and some perspective is needed that I hope will be helpful to him -- and to you.

Indeed, as the old American Express commercial said, "Membership has its priviledges." In this case, however, membership also comes at a price and with some significant drawbacks, especially for a young or new-to-the-business actor.

Michael wrote:

"I recently paid to join AFTRA. What projects can I work on if they are not AFTRA? Can I work on a SAG project (I'm not SAG)? Can I work on student films? Can I work in non-union theatre or Internet projects? If I do, how will AFTRA know? If I do, and AFTRA finds out, what happens to me? What the heck can I act in as an AFTRA actor (and no other unions)?"

I responded:

"The 'official' rule is that once you are a union member, you are prohibited from doing any work that is non-union, whether it is for a project that could have been sanctioned by your union (for example, a non-union television show that could have been under AFTRA’s jurisdiction had the production company opted to go union) or sanctioned by a 'sister' union, in this case SAG or even AEA (Equity) -- and, as the rule is written, that includes student films.

Of course, everything is open to some interpretation and in this changing landscape, a lot of options are up for grabs.
There are two ways in which you can work in a non-union project if you are a union member: 1) File for financial core status, which is your right, which, essentially, puts your union membership on hold and allows you the opportunity to do non-union work. You don’t pay union dues during this time, but, also, the non-union work you do doesn’t count or apply towards (union) pension and health contributions. Also, SAG, in particular, is getting tough on any union member who opts for financial core and later wants back in. Often times, they want you to explain yourself and 'earn' back your union status; other times, nothing happens.

Of course, while it is your right under the law, SAG discourages this because your semi-annual dues are based on a percentage of what union work you do. The more money earned from non-union work, the less money SAG (or AFTRA) can expect from you for dues payments. It’s really, like most things, all rooted in economics and not always in the best interest of the actor.

2) Many actors who hang on to their union cards and union status will often do non-union work, but under a name other than their own. As long as the credit (and the pay check) aren’t traceable back you to, odds of being “found out” are slim to none. However the more successful (read: more recognizable) you become, the less valid this option becomes.

SAG has a special contract agreement for student filmmakers, in their desire to get young filmmakers used to the idea of making union-sanction films. It costs them (the students) very little for the agreement from SAG, which then allows union actors to work in these productions with either a waived (or deferred) fee or a very small stipend.

The truth is that neither SAG or AFTRA can keep on top of the business they ought to be watching, so you’re pretty safe doing student films, whether “sanctioned” by a union or not.

The penalties for a union actor who gets caught doing a non-union job can vary from (usually) a slap on the wrist to hefty fines, depending on who you are and what the circumstances are. For example, during the last commercial actors strike, Tiger Woods appeared in a commercial that was shot non-union. While a great golfer, he’s also a SAG member because of the many commercial endorsements he does. He claimed he didn’t know he couldn’t do the project SAG caught him on.

SAG both slapped him on the wrist and fined him a ton of money (primarily to make an example of him and because they know he had the money to pay the fine).
I always urge young and/or new-to-the-business actors to delay joining one (or any) of the unions for as long as possible.

The goal is to build your resume. In the early stages, it shouldn’t matter whether the work is union or non-union. Experience is the goal. Having said that, you’ve already taken the plunge and the way to proceed is always with caution and always having explored and considered all of your options first, before saying 'yes' to anything."

I hope this is helpful to Michael who already has -- and to anyone else who is contemplating the leap to union membership. I'm a big believer in not joining any union until you have to.

A client of mine was just in this situation. Long an AEA member, he found himself up for a SAG-sanctioned job last week that required his joining the union if he was to be hired. Together, we weighed the benefits and the potential losses his joining SAG at this time would bring -- and together we decided that the opportunity in front of him (and the great, new resume credit that he would earn) was too great a boost not to take the leap. So, he did -- and with good reason.

That's the bottom line, really. If it makes sense, if the financial investment seems worth it, then take that leap of faith and of membership and continue your career journey as a union actor. If not, hold off. Most career actors will have to join one, if not all of the unions, eventually. It's all a matter of time and timing.

Are you a union actor? What were the circumstances under which you signed up? Share your story with us by posting here or by sending me an e-mail to



TalkingMan said...

Just to clarify the Financial Core issue: You are not "putting your union membership on hold," you are RESIGNING from the union. You become a "dues-paying non-member" with no rights within the union, though you may work union jobs.
Financial Core was never intended for this purpose. It was the result of a lawsuit by a Communications Workers of America member who did not want his union dues paying for the political lobbying of his union. So Financial Core was created to allow you to resign from the union, still work in a union shop and pay (very slightly) reduced dues for the "core" duties of the union, which is the negotiation of fair working conditions and wages.

Mike Kraft
Cleveland AFTRA

Brad Lemack said...

Mike is absolutely correct. Going fi-core means you do, indeed, resign your membership from the union and when/should you opt to get back in, it's up to a board of your (former) union colleagues to determine if you will be allowed to return -- and, if so, there's a cost for that, which, at this time for AFTRA, is paying initiation dues of $1,300 all over again because you will be considered a "new" member. That may be too high a price to pay for many for the opportunity to do non-union work. However, opting to go financial core remains your right under Federal Law. But, it is a decision that should be made only after weighing all of the options, benefits and consequences of the decision. That's for pointing this out, Mike.