Actors’ Unions And Guilds
Of The Actor, By The Actor…
For The Actor?
Before there were actors unions, producers could do just about anything they wanted to do with actors. They could force them to work round the clock without breaks or overtime. They could fire them if they didn’t like the way they tied their shoes. They didn’t have to pay them health benefits. The actor was on the bottom rung of the creative ladder, and at the mercy of his employer. Working conditions paralleled slavery in those days.
Then actors got together and formed unions to give them a united voice when dealing with producers. This effort didn’t happen overnight. It took time, and met with much opposition, not only from producers, but from actors who were afraid of losing what they already had. But the original founders of the three actors unions (which were formed at different times) held fast. And as the rank and file membership grew, producers had to begin taking the unions seriously.
Working conditions improved. Salaries improved. Everything improved. And so it came to be that if you wanted to be a professional actor, you would have to become a union member. And that’s good. Unions help.
The Big Two
The unions you will want to be concerned with are the Actors Equity Association (Equity), The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) – NOW MERGED INTO ONE UNION CALLED SAG-AFTRA .
Each of these unions has a distinct purpose.
Actors Equity Association (Equity)
This union negotiates working conditions with producers for actors working in live theatre: “stage actors”. If you want to do Broadway, you’ll want to be in Equity. Over the years, smaller Equity theatres have sprung up around the country. Equity allows a percentage of non-Equity actors to work in Equity plays, as “apprentices”, in a manner of speaking. After the non-Equity actor has completed a certain number of Equity plays, he/she is allowed to join Equity. I’m not sure of this number, because I came into Equity through a different route. Equity allowed me to join because I was already a working actor who belonged to the Screen Actors Guild, which Equity considers a “sister” union. I don’t know why it’s referred to as “sister” and not “brother”.
Some actors consider Equity the “real actors” union, because stage actors were on earth before film and television actors. To me, it’s just one of the big three. I joined in New York in case I ever wanted to do a play on Broadway. I never did though. Film is my main love. I didn’t even do an Equity play until I came back to St. Louis, almost 14 years after I joined Equity. But I still keep up my dues. I guess it makes me feel more “affirmed” that I am a… real actor… duh…
Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA)
This is the union, or “guild” for screen actors. This can mean the big, “silver” screen, or the little television screen, and includes jurisdiction on anything that is “filmed” as verses “videotaped”. Most movies are filmed. Some television shows are filmed. Some television commercials are filmed. Some industrials are filmed. If it’s on film, you need to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
A performer becomes eligible for SAG-AFTRA membership under one of the following two conditions:
(1) proof of SAG or AFTRA employment or
(2) employment under an affiliated performers’ union.
To read the complete requirements, please visit the SAG-AFTRA site’s “qualifications” page HERE.
So what can you do to meet the requirements? You have a few options.
1) If you are in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago (and probably Atlanta, Miami, Detroit and a few other cities), you can take a commercial course from a prominent casting director, and that person may want to try to cast you in a commercial which requires a SAG-AFTRA contract. Under those circumstances, you are allowed to sign a “Taft-Hartley” agreement, which will allow you to work 30 days without joining SAG-AFTRA, but the next time you work in a SAG-AFTRA project, you have to join SAG-AFTRA, and SAG-AFTRA will let you.
2) You can work as an “extra” in a film or commercial and hope that the director decides to give you a line. That would qualify you for membership in SAG-AFTRA. I’ve seen that happen many times on projects on which I’ve worked as an actor.
3) You can join (as can anyone) the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and if you work as a “principle” (a speaking part) in an AFTRA project, you are eligible to join SAG after a year’s membership in AFTRA. SAG also honors this type “sister” union courtesy with the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA – clowns and other variety artists) and Equity.
Always remember that being in an actor’s union does not make you an actor. Being an actor makes you an actor.The unions are there to make sure that your working conditions, including health benefits, are the best they can be. Once you become a union member, you are expected to follow union rules and guidelines. The first rule is that you can not work for a non- union producer.
The members of SAG and AFTRA voted to merge the two unions. The new organization, called SAG-AFTRA, was born Friday afternoon, March 30, 2012.
For a list of SAG Franchised agents, click HERE.
For a list of AFTRA Franchised agents, click HERE