Union VS Non-union : Have Your Say

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Whether you wear your union status proudly on your sleeve or prefer to stay among the majority of folks working freelance and setting their own rates, we want to hear from you! The age old question of Union VS Non-union has reared its controversial head again, but there’s a different twist this time.

We want to hear why you are or are not a member of AFTRA, SAG, ACTRA, EQUITY, or other unions that represent artists for voice over work to help conduct a study.
Interested? I received a request from a student writing a paper about the differences between union and non-union in the voice over field. Quite the topic, isn’t it?

How can you help? By leaving a comment on this post (or sending it to me confidentially) about your experiences as union or non-union voice talent.
To get right to it, we need to build a list of the pros and cons of being a union member and also the pros and cons of being a non-union voice talent.
Looking forward to your thoughts on this very passionate subject.
Let the comments roll,

Technorati Tags: Voices.com, Unions, AFTRA, SAG, ACTRA, Equity, Voice Overs, Non Union, and Voice Actors.

Image removed at the request of AFTRA.com

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  • Nathaniel S. Johnson
    March 16, 2007, 11:23 am

    I was obliged to join two unions during my career in Boston radio and TV (NABET and IBEW). Neither of these unions were useful to my career in any way and in the end, I only felt resentful having to pay annuals dues for nothing. Better off to stay independent and away from unions that have little or no power or influence in America anymore.

  • Bryan Cox
    March 16, 2007, 11:25 am

    Should it be Client or NO Client. If one searches out clients and offers them a commercial at a certain price say 300 dollars, you get and keep that client.
    Now if you belong to a Union, you have to offer the client a commercial at Union Rates, which might work out to 500 dollars. I’ve had many clients that want non union voices and only a few that want union.
    Wonder why.

  • Patty
    March 16, 2007, 11:36 am

    Hmmmm, this is indeed a tough question.
    Union is great I am in the unions SAG and AFTRA and to get a great union job that is residual paying is really what one aspires to do on a consistent basis, however I think the majority of producers right now are non-union and wanting to get talent that is non union to avoid the fees associated with the unions.
    This makes it difficult for someone who does this kind of work full time. I would suggest looking into Financial Core status so you can take advantage of jobs on all fronts. Getting into the first call rankings of union voice actors may take some time and exposure to achieve, so in the meantime you may need to take non-union jobs to get the much needed exposure that puts you in that top ranking.
    It can be a double edged sword at times as well because you work hard to have the union status you dreamed of and then not being able to reap the benefits/book solely union jobs, can not only be frustrating but impossible if you need to make a living as a voice actor.
    This is a quagmire… hopefully soon there will be some sort of middle ground where we can take advantage of all job opportunities without having to omit one or the other.

  • Bob Green
    March 16, 2007, 11:50 am

    When I first “had to” join AFTRA-SAG back in 1971, I was working with Ogilvy & Mather, McCann Erickson & others who required it. At that time I kept the union in the same balywick as my draft board… I wasn’t inclined to send them Christmas cards on 12/25. As I learned over the years… there are two sides to the issue.
    Although union rates & rules were designed to accommodate talent and get the pay scale where it should be etc, the union was often unrealistic. The big strike a decade ago was the killer.
    The union claimed “if you want professional talent, you must use union talent”. Well, of course, that just wasn’t always so and in the new millennium the semantics about who’s “good” or “professional” is up for grabs. The one undeniable GREAT feature about the union for me is the MEDICAL coverage. The BEST and the CLIENT pays it when you do a union job… so my coverage for me AND my wife has been first class at NO cost to me.
    For NEW talent being non-union will probably make it easier for you to get MORE jobs, but in the end, I’m not sure you REALLY come out ahead. If you really wish to answer those “sound of James Earl Jones for national TV paying $50” auditions.
    Well, keep your day job.

  • Brian in Charlotte
    March 16, 2007, 12:48 pm

    I froze my SAG/AFTRA cards a number of years ago… not that I don’t like many of things that the union provides, but the voiceover industry has changed dramatically… such that my paradigm had to morph as well.
    Now, I must say that I live in a “right to work state” thus I can work union jobs even though I am non-union. BUT, even if that was not the case, I have provided for a wife and two young girls on ALL NON-UNION work which I have received through Voices.com and another casting company… plus what little comes through my agent.
    If I were union, I would be obligated to turn down all those opportunities that, frankly, have grown into great working relationships that have yielded repeat business. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that upwards of 80% of my business is repeat business.
    So, to answer the question of Union or Non-Union, I believe the altered voiceover landscape has dictated the path…non-union. NOW if, by the grace of God, I were to get an amazing longterm gig whereby it made prudent business sense to thaw out my union cards… I would consider it, but it would probably have to be the “once in a lifetime” type opportunity.
    I virtually never bid a job at the posted budget level… it’s always higher. I stick to the idea that the value of the audio is in the end use of it… thus, the rate is presented accordingly.
    So, for me… non-union is a must and my wife and kids eat very well as a result.

  • Valarie
    March 16, 2007, 1:06 pm

    I was forced to join AFTRA while working as a news & traffic announcer in San Francisco. They were ineffectual at best in that job capacity, yet as I started a second career as a voice over talent, I was being offered jobs that were all non-union. Let’s be honest, all the big gigs at a national level are being gobbled up by retired movie stars.
    A legal option was opting for “Financial Core”. The name is supposed to inspire confusion. It basically means you can work union AND non-union jobs. It is legal and be advised that you will still have to pay your union dues. YET, even though I was at a senior level in my radio career, I was the first to be laid off regardless of the station outrage.
    In a nutshell, the union AFTRA can, and will make your life a living hell should you choose Financial Core. How do they find out? You have to submit it in writing to the union on your status change. See, if you’re in a union and you do an outside gig and they find out, they can pile on some hefty fines.
    By selecting Financial Core, you’re safe from that, but not from the wrath of the union. I received downright hostile phone calls from some major people at AFTRA and was given 30 days to “change my mind”. I didn’t. A short time later, I was laid off from my job.
    Illegal? Yes. AFTRA was powerless in our union negotiations with the company in question and couldn’t care less. Although the union IN THEORY is a noble one, that is not mirrored in the current situation.
    About 95% of all my voice over work has been non-union work. The union would be necessary should a national gig come knocking, but I don’t think any of the multitude of movie stars that take these jobs would pass them along to us.

  • Alain Cadieux
    March 16, 2007, 1:36 pm

    I am a member of UDA and Actra and I think it is better to work union for 3 major reasons.
    1 Better paycheck
    2 Residuals
    3 Healthcare Plan
    The best thing to do I think is to go both ways, union and non-union if necessary, depending on the client. When you work for an ad agency for example, they are always Union, but if you’re working directly for a client who doesn’t go through an agency, you should go non-union but try to charge about the same amount as if Union or a little less.
    If we all stick together on this, we won’t have to give out our work for peanuts.

  • Kara Edwards
    March 16, 2007, 2:13 pm

    This question seems to come up a lot. I’ve always been non-union. I’ve also always lived in places that were non-union/right to work states. I’m fortunate in that I’m covered under my husband’s health insurance and benefits, so that isn’t an issue. Having never been union, I can’t speak to any advantages/disadvantages.
    I do like setting my own rates and seeking out my own work. I feel I have total control. However, I appreciate knowing the ‘union’ standards for fees, as I try to keep mine very close.
    Sometimes, however, a job will pop up that is just a blast to work on, and I have no issue accepting lower pay (NO – I don’t mean $50!). I guess that’s the advantage to being non-union… you have no one to answer to… and no annual fees!

  • Stephanie Ciccarelli
    March 16, 2007, 3:13 pm

    Hi everyone,
    Great feedback so far!
    I thought I’d jump in briefly to explain Financial Core for those who are unsure (it’s an ambiguous topic).
    In order to qualify to work Financial Core jobs, you need to have been a member of either AFTRA or SAG FIRST.
    It is only after you formally resign from the union (I’m referring to the Beck Case – more on that in another post), that former union members are able to take union and non-union jobs.
    However, and this may be news to a lot of people, you can only do that if you continue to pay dues to the union at a reduced rate. This means that your dues would only go towards particular union endeavors and admin fees, not to their causes (i.e. political).
    In order to do this, you must have a very good reason for leaving the union – they don’t just grant this to anyone who asks.
    * Updated *
    Here’s a link to learn more about that at the Nation Right to Work website:
    As I said, we’ll discover more about Financial Core in a later post, including the Beck Case and it’s role.
    Keep the comments coming. Your perspectives are extremely important and valuable for people who are asking themselves the age old question… 🙂
    Have a great weekend,

  • David Sobolov
    March 16, 2007, 5:53 pm

    Working union means you’re signed to a collective agreement negotiated with producers who’ve dedicated themselves to working in a completely professional environment… with wages and working conditions that are fair considering the revenue generated for the producer from the use of your talent.
    When performing on videogames, animation, radio or tv commercials for national brands, you’re just being exploited if you work for the $100 – $300 many of the producers soliciting performers on some Internet casting sites offer you… it tells the world what YOU think you’re worth – and sets a very low standard for the industry and your future.
    If a company is making millions when your talent convinces people to buy a product, or people get invested in a show because of your voice – don’t you feel exploited letting them pay you $300? Isn’t it only fair you get a share of the pie you helped bake?
    At any price, non-union commercial work pays you once (with no residuals) and then they can use your work FOREVER. Seems good when you need money to pay the rent this month, but it can prevent you from doing other work you’ll want to pursue in the future. When Fabric Softener A is running your spot for 5 years, and a gig for Fabric Softener B comes along – they can’t hire you.
    And going Fi-core means you’re resigning from the union – you can’t legally say you’re a member of Screen Actors Guild or AFTRA on your resume. You’ll also have to pay a hefty fee to rejoin, and there’s no guarantee the Guild or AFTRA will even allow you to rejoin.
    Think about whether you’re in this for the long term, or just doing voiceover work for hobby money. There’s no crime in making acting a hobby, but if you work non-union all your life.. it’s really JUST a hobby – and that’s all it can ever be if we allow companies to set our worth at a pittance… while they make millions.
    David Sobolov
    SAG Hollywood Board Member

  • Scott Larson
    March 16, 2007, 7:13 pm

    In my 19 year career as a broadcaster, I’ve had the opportunity to join the union, but could never afford the dues. I am and will always be a non-union voice artist.
    Now, if I lived in LA or NYC, I may not get the work I would need to survive those jungles. But I do believe that a non-union status will help you pay the bills, you’ll just have to get lots and lots of work.
    Thanks for a great post,

  • Elinor Bell
    March 16, 2007, 8:42 pm

    As always, a fascinating exchange going on here. In the San Francisco Bay Area there seems to be much more non-union than union VO and on-camera work available. So, if I want to work, it is not to my advantage to be in the union. Their rates, though are my goal in negotiations, while also keeping in mind the flexibility my non-union status affords.
    However, I also do stage work and am working on my Equity Candidacy points. For stage work, it would be an advantage to be AEA; but then there is that reciprocal union thing going on. In one way that’s very good: if you’ve proven yourself in one aspect of the business, you’re accepted as proven in other realms of the business. What’s to complain about? Membership opens some doors and closes others; that’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact.
    I have many points to go to earn the right to join Equity, so it is not an issue yet. I still don’t know what I will do when that opportunity presents itself.
    Thanks for a fascinating and important topic. I look forward to reading more responses over the next few days.

  • eduse
    March 16, 2007, 8:48 pm

    Good discussion. Lots of people I know work on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis – keeping union status IF any such work comes up – while really making $ non union.
    Sad to say, the union has failed in its mission to the rank & file and is only catering to and offering its protection to those who make so much $ that the union is not really necessary. They have lawyers to work for them.
    It’s only in the area of safety that I fear for the union. They have protected us on those issues & set the standard (not an issue for VO).
    For years I was very loyal to the union, and DIDN’T WORK. To make any $ and keep myself alive in the industry I have had to be less scrupulous, alas…

  • Karridine
    March 17, 2007, 1:49 am

    Not much to add, except that I’ve worked a couple years now as non-union, at least in part because I’m living expat, not in the continental US.
    If you, Dear Reader, have a Voice Agency of choice (good repute, GETS WORK) please email me!
    Thanks, from one changing paradigm to another!

  • Robin Rowan
    March 17, 2007, 11:02 am

    This is one of the best posts ever–great for discussion!
    I was all set to join AFTRA–the benefits posted online seemed great, dues were high, but seemed worth it. I’ve been in this business for more than 25 years, and thought I was ready to take the next big step. However, I e-mailed AFTRA for more info, then e-mailed them again, and yet again. Then several weeks later I left a voice mail message. Then another. After a few months (like 3), I got an e-mail response from someone saying to contact them for more information. Sheesh.
    After that poor introduction, I started asking other union talents I’ve worked with if it is really a good deal. Every one of them gave me a resounding NO! One said he only gets about 4 or 5 jobs a YEAR that are union jobs, and the other said even with 3 agents working for her, she doesn’t get any union work!
    Perhaps the unions should read all of these postings and see there are definite problems in the industry. I’m not always happy with the sometimes low-ball price I am offered for voice work, but I am working steadily–enough to make a living–and that’s saying a lot!

  • Ron Altman
    March 17, 2007, 12:31 pm

    Some very interesting and informative comments.
    Here’s my two cent’s worth:
    I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve always done my voice work on a part-time basis and so never had to rely on a constant flow of jobs.
    During my working career, however, I’ve belonged to the IBEW (forced to join) and AFTRA. In IBEW we Broadcast Technicians were considered as “bastard children”. There was never any attempt to get us anything during negotiations. They did, though, gladly accept our dues!
    While working in our nation’s capital I joined AFTRA in an attempt to jump-start my voice-over/narration career. I think AFTRA was a useful tool at one time but, let’s face it; they’ve priced themselves out of competition for all but the largest of projects.
    When I retired from my “day job” I went inactive with AFTRA.
    I’ll give AFTRA this; they have great organizational skills and they take good care of their members on a shoot.

  • Brett
    March 17, 2007, 9:02 pm

    I am a member of both AFTRA and SAG, and although these unions irritate me on occasion, I am proud to be a member. They guarantee a fair wage, provide health and retirement plans, and provide the professional voice performer with the opportunity to book major clients for television and radio broadcast.
    I feel there is a need for both union and non-union, and I feel there are good non-union performers. I do take issue with those “dollar a holler” “performers” in the non-union world whose race to the bottom helps no one. Union or non-union, this is a profession, and it should be taken seriously.
    Unfortunately, with the wide availability of cheap equipment these days, anyone who’s ever been told they have a nice voice can go out and buy a $79 USB microphone and claim to “do voice-over work.” Good VO performance takes experience, training, and persistence. It has become way to easy for anyone with a half-way decent set of pipes to throw his hat into the ring, and it can really lower the bar.
    I also take issue with the attitude that any work is fair game, union or non-union. You’re one or the other. What is the confusion here? Believe me, I’ve had to turn down quite a few jobs which were non-union, and I didn’t do it so that another willy-nilly union member could book it off the card.
    So whatever your opinion of the unions, ideally you will choose one or the other. And if it’s the non-union route that you choose, please do us all a favor and charge a respectable rate!

  • Bob North
    March 30, 2007, 11:51 am

    I started this response at least three to four weeks ago folks, but when addressing the union question, one can not just say yeah or neigh, believe me!!
    After 40 plus years in the business ( 30 of which were mostly union, as my career started in TV production and morphed to Radio) I think that I can safely say that I agree with most of what Bob Green has said. Although, I believe that even he would have to edit his comments about those “benefits being free” ( paid for by the client [especially of late]). A quick look at your pay stub will put that in perspective. Still, the client does pay the bulk of it.
    There are so many factors contributing to the staying power of Unions, none the least of which is the fact that once you are in the union; and, therefor accustomed to little things like a viable retirement structure plus medical benefits in time of need, it is tough to avail yourself of the aforementioned perks. This is especially true if an illness creeps into the picture over time! Those “preexisting illness clauses can be daunting. I can say that when I got pretty sick many years ago that, had it not been for a union benefits program, I could have really taken a hit. As Bob Green put it the benefits were there; and, yes they surely seem like it was free, comparatively.
    My sense is that if so many of the “hobbyists”, who in many cases do a respectable job, would think before they agree to “a dollar a holler”, unions might not have such a strong appeal. They do dictate rates and for the most part keep producers and talent alike, honest. If people would just think before they give their services away; but, they get desperate and hungry and that is where things go down the drain.
    Regarding the relative cost of our benefits, the “free” part of the equation has shifted pretty dramatically over the past several years … upward on the cost scale. Is it still a good deal, comparatively? Try finding your own benefits package and see if it matches, dollar for dollar what you might get through the union. No, all unions packages are NOT EQUAL !! I have heard that AFTRA is not quite as “talent friendly” as SAG. ‘Should of put more billing through SAG for sure; and tried to establish two benefit plans as some of my friends have done. ‘Coulda, ‘Shoulda, ‘Woulda, …… the age old scenario plays itself out over and over. Further, the qualifications (annual talent billing of jobs channeled through the union (AFTRA) are getting higher and higher. On top of which is the fact that our industry is a very “age aware”, dare I say biased, which makes it harder and harder for the “older” less viable talent to crack that annual nut to qualify for said benefits.
    Earlier on I mentioned that 30 of the 40+ years of my career was as a union member ( mostly ). I had a stint as a Fi Core member. Did I regret that decision? Not really, at the time. My decision to leave was driven by my dissatisfaction with union officials at the time; and their obvious lust for power and self promotion. Going Fi Core seemed like my only real way to protest, without shooting myself in the foot in terms of benefits (health and retirement). Once you are vested, those benefits are locked in; and, you are still contributing to your health plan which maintains another critical part of the “union benefits”. You see, as a FI Core member you give up your right to vote in union elections for starters. You also do not get union news releases. So?, you say. Exactly!! If those in power are going to push issues through without really considering the “talent / working stiff” relative to the market in which the talent plies his/her craft; and, how those increasing rates (through the ceiling) will negatively impact the talent’s ability to compete with “non union” sorts, you have two choices. One is to stay and play by rules with which you do not agree; or, leave and try to compete fairly in the marketplace. This, by the way, has become even more daunting of late with the internet.
    The union is like any other “business”: there are always going to be those who will sacrifice others well being to get ahead, whether that is buy trying to grow their “domain” at the risk of efficiently managing the job at hand and growing efficiently.
    So, what are your options? If you are just starting out you might consider incorporation which is not without its own set of headaches. Remember though, this is a business; and with doing business comes certain fiscal duties. The issue of Fi Core has changed a little over the years; and may not be quite a easily adopted. Further, in order to become Fi Core you still have to join a union ( AFTRA or SAG ); and the entry fees are rather stout! Remember, you have to spend some money to make money, regardless of the business.
    Well, I think that I have about run out of “words of wisdom” for now. I hope that this has helped you weigh your options more efficiently. Some choices can be amended as you go; but remember that life is full of little changes which might not seem that consequential at the time. Don’t you believe it for a minute. As your life changes today, be in in terms of health or wealth, it will not doubt impact you further down the road. Your job is to heed all of the signs as you travel; and, be ready to react “before” you come to that “unseen” curve.
    Bob North
    Bob North
    Talented Credible Professional
    Phone / Fax 740-666-7771
    Cell 614–296-2242

  • Paul Horn
    April 6, 2007, 9:39 am

    Hi everyone–as an AFTRA/SAG member of long-standing, it strikes me that a few points seem lost or overlooked in this discussion:
    1) The basic reasons unions were created in the first place: to provide benefits and protections that as individual performers we could not readily create or sustain on our own: health insurance, pensions, minimum wages and working conditions, and the like; and (2) to serve as a counter-weight to the tremendous power of employers in setting rates and working conditions, especially in our era of media-consolidation.
    2) As human, democratic institutions unions of course aren’t perfect, and sometimes they disappoint or even fail their members. Yet they can only be as strong as their members commit to working in solidarity, accepting the need for compromise for the greater benefit of all, and care enough to elect good leadership and contribute to the union’s work. It’s painful to read the accounts of people who felt their unions let them down. But I can assure you that for every such report, there are plenty of situations where without the union stepping in to fight for a worker’s rights (for overtime pay, safe working conditions, freedom from workplace discrimination, freedom to compete for another job in the same geographic area, etc.), that actor or broadcaster would have been out of luck.
    3) Financial Core status: a lot of misunderstanding here. FC really amounts to a legal loophole that allows non-members (people who have joined and then quit the union) to do both union and non-union work, often in the mistaken belief that they will save substantially on their dues. But even more important to understand is that the effect of working “financial core” is to undermine the union’s ability to protect performers, or even to exist. In effect, FC status allows these “non members” to take advantage of their brothers and sisters who remain committed to the union’s “one for all and all for one” spirit, members who say “no” to work unless it comes with a union contract and the minimum benefits and protections it provides. Meanwhile, FC performers, looking out only for themselves, reap the benefit of their fellow performers’ commitment as union members. Thus, while technically legal, FC status is a selfish and I believe unethical position. And, ultimately, self-defeating: after all, if everyone chose FC status, producers would have no incentive to work with union contracts and unions would disappear, leaving us all in that proverbial “race for the bottom.” (If you’re a union member now and considering FC status, I recommend that you talk not only with the union but also with some members who chose FC status, later realized their shortsightedness, and came back for reinstatement).
    Paul Horn

  • Ellie
    April 13, 2007, 3:20 pm

    I believe that unions first did a lot of good, but now they are more concerned about their own power than the individual’s right to make his/her own decisions over his/her career.
    Without unions, people could still band together on their own to demand fair treatment.
    What I find so interesting is that the purpose of the union was to make sure that actors were receiving fair pay and treatment.
    I believe that no actor, union or nonunion, should subject themselves to any abuse of power.
    There are often nonunion gigs that pay well and respect actors. So what’s the harm? There’s no harm to actors, only to the union’s power.
    I think the unions need to be honest with themselves about what they are fighting for.

  • Peter Haydu
    April 15, 2007, 9:39 pm

    Here’s another perspective from a union performer.
    I’m a member of AEA, AFTRA, and SAG, and, while I haven’t always agreed with the decisions of the governing bodies of those unions (and while there are paid staff in all three unions, the governing bodies are entirely made up of unpaid members donating their time), I have never felt that they were not working to further the interests of the membership at large. But because the union truly IS the membership, if enough members feel that the union is going astray or not addressing their concerns, they can vote the Councilors or Board Members out and replace them with those who represent their views more properly.
    If there is a group of professionals more in need of representation by a strong union against managements which are often dragged kicking and screaming to the bargaining table, I can’t think of one.
    Remember that there was a time when an actor would go out on the road with a show, and if the show closed, the actor was stranded wherever that happened, without any way home except what s/he could come up with out of his/her own funds, which were probably very limited because there were no minimum salaries. I, for one, don’t want to depend on the kindness of producers. Some of them may mean well, but their interests are not necessarily our interests, and without a union there would be no basic and hard-won benefits of employment: no minimum salaries, no limited work hours, no protection against hazardous working conditions or unreasonable dismissal, no medical insurance, no pension.
    That’s what we, and our unions, are fighting for!
    So, because the union IS the membership, harm to the union IS harm to actors. If we don’t stick together and demand our rights and protections we will lose them. And any union actor who works without a contract IS harming his/her fellow actors, because if producers feel that union actors will work without a contract, why on earth would any producer sign one?

  • Mike Kraft
    June 3, 2007, 2:25 pm

    Why Should You Join the Union? Here’s One Good Reason.
    There is a tendency, particularly among producers, clients and the general public, to think of actors as overpaid; especially those darn UNION actors who get big fat royalties and residuals and sit around eating bon-bons while waiting for the mailman to bring their next batch of checks.
    I will admit that some of my happiest moments are when I receive a residual check for a commercial or a web video that was shot one or two years ago. It’s like manna from heaven, only you can pay bills with it.
    But do I deserve it? I mean, I may have only been in the studio for a few hours, and here I am, lo these many moons later, getting gravy on top of my mashed potatoes – because of a job for which I have already been paid.
    Here’s the short answer: You bet I do.
    Aside from the fact that local commercials really don’t pay much in the first place, the question often on the producer’s mind is, “Why should you get paid again? You’ve already been paid! And it only took you 45 minutes to do it in the first place! Sheesh!!” Or words to that effect.
    This attitude is understandable; after all, most people work at a job and do X and receive Y for it. If your X is worth $20 an hour, at the end of X40, you get 800 Y’s. But when it comes to acting, some people expect the equation to be the same – act for 2 hours, get paid for two hours. After all, it’s not like you’re digging ditches or curing Cancer! All you’re doing is talking! And in some cases, you’re not even doing that!
    Well, It’s a simple equation, and I’m sure most actors already know it;
    Value Received = Value Given.
    Let’s say you’re the butcher in a cute little shop on the corner of a Norman-Rockwell-American town. In walks Mrs. McGillicuddy and buys a beautiful smoked ham. She gives you $35 for the fine piece of maple-cured goodness and out she goes, everybody happy. Well, a month goes by and in walks Mrs. M. and says, I’d like another one of those hams, please! You graciously wrap up a ham just like the first one and hand it to her. “Oh, thank you!” Says Mrs. M., and out she walks. “Hey! Wait a minute!” you say, “Aren’t you going to pay for that?”. To which she responds, “I paid you last month! You don’t expect me to pay AGAIN, do you?”
    Being a good shopkeeper who doesn’t want to go out of business, you snatch the ham from her grasp and indicate in no uncertain terms that if she wants your ham, she’s going to have to pay for it again.
    And that is what we call residuals.
    Not many moons ago, the economy in this country came out of the ground; it was an agriculturally-based economy, with fortunes being made in the growth and sale of commodities like cotton, wheat, sorghum, pork bellies etc. The next economic wave was industrial; steel, machines, cars, durable goods. The tide then shifted rapidly to a service economy; accounting, consulting, IT, programming and other jobs where no one gets dirty. America moved with great rapidity through these economic phases, in each case leaving the old economy workers in the proverbial dust.
    Well, the economic tide has turned once again; our economy has moved to an information-based economy, or “Intellectual Property.” According to Ernst & Young, Intellectual Property will be the primary force of the GNP before the decade is out. It has already surpassed all manufacturing sectors, and is growing more than twice as fast as all other economic segments.
    What does that have to do with us? Everything. What we do (acting) is not a product, nor is it a service – it is intellectual property. Once your image and likeness or your voice is recorded on tape, film, or straight to ones and zeros on a hard drive, it is no longer your time in the studio, nor your presence in the sound booth that is providing the value; it is the intellectual property itself. And that is the ham you’re selling.
    Many times I have performed in a commercial only to find it being reused in the local market or I discover it being used in another market altogether. I also have found spots re-cut for a completely different advertiser. In one case, I ended up selling paint for a hardware store chain in Quebec, and I was speaking French! Sacre Bleu! If not for the courage of the fearless Union, I would not have received anything for these continued uses of my image, likeness and voice.
    The point, my dear readers, is that you should never feel you are being unreasonable to expect to be paid appropriately for the value you provide, regardless of when or how you provide it. Trust me, the products being sold aren’t being given away for free, the ad agency isn’t working gratis, and the TV station doesn’t give up air time for nothing.
    Non-union jobs simply don’t pay residuals, and you are not protected against unlimited use of your intellectual property. The union helps you retain those rights and be paid for those reuses. Performing non-union work simply leaves you with no protection at all.
    The moral of this story? Just because you’re a ham doesn’t mean you should give it away for free.
    Mike Kraft
    AFTRA Cleveland

  • Denny Delk
    July 3, 2007, 6:04 pm

    I was strolling through the blog when I came across this discussion of union vs. non-union voice over, and as someone who has been doing this successfully for over 30 years, I thought I’d ring in.
    The unions (AFTRA and SAG) are important to the life of any performer who attempts to make a living in these businesses. Whether you do voice over for commercials, games, industrials, TV promos, animation, IVR, audible books or podcasts, the unions provide a service to members by helping establish reasonable minimum compensation, collecting and administering funds for the health and pensions of performers, and ensuring that the performer is paid in a timely manner. They’ve allowed us to generate a template for compensation that means we don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time someone comes along to offer us work for “a dollar a holler.”
    There will always be difficulties with peoples’ perception of how they are treated by the unions, since many people who don’t have good luck building a career like to find someone to blame. The union is an easy target, since too many who don’t educate themselves to the benefits of membership the union is a face-less entity.
    It is interesting to hear people talk about financial core and how it is just the same as working union. They say they experience no difference in working conditions and maybe only a little less money in their pockets. Every person I’ve ever talked to who went core and then came back told me a totally different story. They talked of abuses on the set or in the studio, of long waits to get paid, and in those cases where there was a dispute as to the amount of pay, the employer simply turned their back and said “sue me”. That kind of behavior doesn’t happen when you work union.
    Financial core is all tied up in politics and the freedom of choice, or at least so the courts thought when they made the decisions that created the status of “fee paying non-member”. The people complaining were either anti-union or wanted to be free from paying dues money to finance political positions. The second of those I have some sympathy with, and I have know people who have selected financial core status on that basis. In the case of AFTRA, however, that position is specious, since AFTRA spends “political” money only on issues that concern working members, like non-compete laws for broadcasters or legislation governing talent agents.
    One lady talked about going core and facing the wrath of the union. I don’t know the specifics of her case, but the wrath was likely not that of the union, but of other performers who understood the economic reality of supply and demand. When we stand together as performers and say we won’t work for less than the union minimum, the employers have to deal with us on that basis if they want a spot that doesn’t sound like Billie Mays for Hercules Hooks. As people capable of doing the work erode the rates that have been negotiated over the years, they damage everyone’s ability to demand reasonable compensation and they endanger our ability to make a living. I have nothing good to say about Fi-core either. And I would not be shy about letting that person know. And believe me, the word gets around fast in most towns.
    Working in a “Right to Work” state is another matter entirely. I came from those areas, and I know how difficult it can be to find union employment, especially when your fellows are convinced they can never get those kinds of rates and conditions from employers. It is funny though that whenever the agency or game producer wants to get talent from New York, LA, San Francisco or wherever (and no, not just movie stars) they manage to find the budget. And that includes companies from Texas, Virginia, Florida and the Carolinas. You can’t get much farther right of Right to Work than that.
    There are good VO jobs to be had out there, and if you have the skill, the luck and the tenacity to go after them, and stay union, you will benefit greatly. But don’t blame the unions because your career isn’t working out. Pull on your Daddy pants (or Mommy pants), take a deep breath and work at it. And if you don’t like how the union is working, get involved and become part of directing it to do the correct thing. There are many working performers who do just that, and we are all better for their contributions.

  • LM
    October 19, 2007, 4:42 pm

    I’d been in SAG and Aftra for about 30 years. I went “Fi-Core” about 7 years ago, however many of the years with these unions, I went on Honorable Withdrawal and only paid dues when I was booked. SAG “Disciplined” me for doing a Non-union job and fined me $500.00. The exposure I got in that film led into my working high-caliber SAG/Studio jobs to this day.
    I’m not a lawyer, but always felt that NOBODY who ISN’T going to SUPPLY me with a job can “ORDER” me not to work elsewhere. It didn’t make sense legally, so I found Financial-Core, which suits my rebellious attitude towards “The System”. The fact is that ANYONE who is in a talent union and DOESN’T go “Fi-Core” should INDEED have their head examined!!!!!

  • Diane
    October 31, 2007, 11:07 am

    It’s possible that for an individual’s pocketbook Fi-Core may work better, but even then it may only be in the short term. Once your status is known, someone may not hire you knowing you are Fi-Core and will work for less. I’ve also heard from casting agents that Fi-Core people usually are less likely to get chosen for the best jobs.
    But more importantly, becoming Fi-Core is damaging to the unions and long term hurts every actor’s ability to make a decent living.
    It’s fine to leave the union to be non-union, in my opinion. Yet when you choose Fi-Core you undo the work so many have done to have actors have a chance at making a decent living. The whole point of being union is to say, we deserve this minimum amount for our work. You may disagree with this – and if so, go non-union. But union members sacrifice a lot to keep the union’s values intact, so to take advantage of union benefits without making the sacrifices so many have made to keep the union’s ability to get actors these wages intact, is in my opinion, unethical and selfish.

  • J. Peterman
    November 26, 2007, 7:47 pm

    Union is the only way to go. Especially in the construction field. By nationwide averages union construction workers will make 52% more than those working at non-union (rat) shops. Union people never have to work in unfair conditions. We work as a group with the advantage of power in numbers. Bringing your own power tools or working during breaks will have negative consequences and repercussions by the union and its members. We work by contracts that are sacred. Early union pioneers gave their lives to protect our contract and working conditions. Us union workers built American and we represent freedom. Non-union is the enemy and can be compared with the cheap labor of China and other communist nations that have no pride in their workmanship. I am proud to be a union man and everyday I work, I will show it with my skilled craftsmanship. I am “Made in the U.S.A.” quality. God bless union people, America needs us.

  • Bob
    February 5, 2008, 3:53 pm

    J. Peterman, how can you possibly say such comments about your fellow Americans? I have a friend that owns a union HVAC company, and 60% of those 49 workers have been caught numerous times sleeping on the job, or screwing around. A lot more union workers tend to work slower than do the non union workers. Union workers are also way over paid. What I do not understand about union workers is that they always say to be pro union, and only give jobs to union workers and so on… but when it comes to their own homes that need to be built or fixed, they do not call a union company to do the work, they call a cheaper non-union company to get the job done. Also, union workers CAN be real annoying SOMETIMES with all of their bitching and protesting.

  • Dave Andrews
    February 18, 2008, 10:44 pm

    I’m not a member of AFTRA because I never needed to be, but I’m not opposed to them.
    SAG is another story. As far as I’m concerned they can kiss my bottom. I’m not qualified to join SAG. Never mind that I’ve worked background on well over 50 TV shows, including Desperate Housewives, Gilmore Girls, Monk, etc. etc. etc… Ad Nauseum. Never mind that I made my entire living on acting roles for two years. Never mind that I’ve had speaking roles on movies, TV shows and video games, including a lead role in a pilot. I was paid for every one of them, but they were non-union, so according to SAG I’m not a working professional and not qualified to join them. I never joined because they never allowed me to, but they still have the gall to say I should not work non-unions jobs because it hurts them??? If they wanted me to stop working non-union jobs, they should have invited me to join them, rather than playing “good old boys club.”
    They are an arrogant organization that thinks the whole industry revolves entirely around them.

  • Natalie West
    February 27, 2008, 2:57 pm

    Amen Dave!

  • Ed Victor
    May 8, 2008, 8:30 am

    Hmmmmmmmm, what can I say about the unions. I have been a member of both SAG and AFTRA for 20 years. Having to join in what seemed to be the hey day of the advertising business.
    My opinion is this: The majority of big time, residual paying voice work or on camera work for that matter is union.
    The major Ad Agengy players in the industry, the JWT’s, Campbell-Ewalds, Crispin Porters, Fallon’s, etc are all signatories to the union. Therefore, in order to even have a chance in hell at securing one of those gigs you have to be in the union! I mean look at frigging Jared, or the “can you hear me now?” guy. Union members? You bet! Those two are set for life.
    When I was working steadily in the union – I even had health benefits!!! Can you imagine. But, if you don’t earn a certain dollar amount, kiss your “bennies” bye bye!
    Now, the downside of being a member, especially working in a “right to work” state, such as FLA, where I have relocated. I can’t get arrested! Ad Agencies are cutting back, because clients are cutting back. They would prefer to pay a one time non-union buyout than pay residuals every 13 weeks. The unions may be the thing to be in – if you reside in NY or LA or Chicago – but here in FLA… it’s all non union! You can be union and maybe get a gig once in a while, but the reality is… if you want to eat, pay your bills and simply survive, the trend is to keep your options open and NOT BE IN THE UNION. Peace out

  • Owen Baker-Flynn
    June 5, 2008, 4:14 pm

    I’ve been a member of AFTRA for 18 years and SAG for ten years and every day I wake up and wonder if today is the day I’ll go FC. The fact is the unions are great if you’re a big time earner and qualify for health and retirement benefits. If you’re not a big earner, like myself and 90% of union members, then the money that has been paid into the funds will fund someone else’s health and retirement plans and you won’t see a penny. At some point I will wake up and say I’ve got to fund my own retirement plans and not wait for the unions to help me.

  • coco.rivera
    July 2, 2008, 2:55 pm

    I understand Dave 100%. Why is SAG so complicated to join?
    A much easier process would be to do this:
    1. If you want to be an actor, you must join the actor’s union (i.e if you want to be a lawyer – you must pass the bar)
    2. To join the actor’s union you go down to your local branch and fill out the forms, submit them and pay the membership fee and the subsequent dues.
    3. You are in THE union and can now work as an actor.
    4. Simple. Everyone who wishes to be a working, fairly paid actor can now do so.
    (I think this is what AFTRA does – correct me if I am wrong)
    Not being in SAG doesn’t mean that you are not professional or that you are a bad actor. I know many non-union actors that can out play many a SAG actor.
    Not being in SAG just means you didn’t get any vouchers and never figured out the catch-22 of “you must be SAG to get SAG work and in order to join SAG you must book a SAG job” What?????
    I think that this process had to have been much easier in the early days of SAG (maybe??)
    So at this point it all boils down to being liked by a P.A and getting a coveted voucher, paying someone off and getting one of the coveted vouchers, having the right look for the right day and getting one of the coveted vouchers, having a friend in the business who can ‘hook you up’ with a job so you can get one of the coveted vouchers OR the planets align themselves perfectly and on the day you are working background you get bumped up to a speaking role because the wardrobe you brought from home makes the Star look amazing when you stand next to her/him – and so you get to walk by and say “excuse me” , et voila, you get a voucher for the day.
    To the SAG board members reading this thread – it’s time to re-think the process. It isn’t that most of the non-union ACTORS don’t want to join – it’s that we can’t get in the door. ***Reference Dave’s comment***
    Ever SAG actor that I know got in by sheer luck – right place right time – right look….not by talent or professionalism.
    If a strike came along, we would get dirty looks and be threatened with blacklisting if we crossed the line and took the work – even though we can’t get in the union anyway because of the whole voucher thing.

  • BD
    October 5, 2008, 2:19 am

    I have been a SAG member for a year and know that I can crossover to Equity when I feel I am ready.
    If I become Fi-Core from SAG, does anyone know if I would still be able to join Equity?

  • william
    March 11, 2009, 11:38 pm

    I just started researching the topic of union vs nonunion and it seems to me that a lot of people who are non union do well. How ever because of the way the unions are structured with transparency most nonunion workers try to set union rates and benefits for themselves. To be honest what’s better than that union rates and benefits with out the union. It gives a form of self accomplishment. However the UNION fought the fight to set the standard for fairness for all and that gives accomplishment for all union and nonunion.

  • Kim L. Hubbard
    August 31, 2009, 8:36 am

    There is a lot of terrific information here and widely varied points of view, all with some level of merit. To me, a SAG, AFTRA & AEA member for more than 30 years, it boils down to one simple thing; allowing ALL performers to join the unions “at will.” No more of this ridiculous “points” system crap, or exclusivity silliness. If we want our craft to be respected on all fronts, we must also respect our own fellow performers who wish to take personal and professional pride in what they do. So, let us take the oft used phrase, “All for one and one for all” and let it apply to all who wish to call themselves “ACTORS.” Memberships would swell in all three unions, forming a much truer and stronger “brotherhood/sisterhood of artists.”
    True, many new members would likely be only part-timers, or former actors who have moved on to other careers., so they would only be joining to be able to say they are “card carrying actors,” but so what! That also means they would be one with all of us, forming a much larger and powerful voice of unity in craft. In the end, isn’t that what it is supposed to be about?
    Kim L. Hubbard

  • Mo Lotman
    October 6, 2009, 1:35 pm

    This is a good discussion. As someone who does not live in NY or LA (I’m in Boston), the unions simply do not have enough clout day-to-day to make joining them worthwhile if you have an established non-union VO career. I have spent many years building up my business and I make my full living from doing VO. However, it is a very modest living, and I would like to be able to move out of my 4 BR share, etc. But if I join AFTRA, I would need to give up all of my repeat clients and start at zero! Everyone that I’ve spoken to on the casting side tells me that they see at least as much non-union work as union work, if not more. That’s of course not including all the people that don’t go through any casting process, which are probably 90% non-union. Truthfully, I’d be happy to join the union and keep the wages and benefits strong and have the solidarity, yada yada, IF that was what union membership here provided. But the unions are disingenuous. They want to imply that A) you’re not a professional if you’re not in the union. That is patently and provably false, as my career shows. B) They like to use intimidation and scare tactics, which is repellant to me. C) I hear many arguments, including elsewhere on this post, along the lines of “how dare you go fi core and actually make money”, or “if you’re not making money, don’t blame the union, it’s because you’re not working hard enough”… The union, theoretically, is supposed to want everyone to do well and make money. If they are arguing for asceticism for principle’s sake, “we’re poor and not getting enough work, but at least we stayed true to the union!” then to me the whole model has failed. Unions, in theory, are great ideas and have done wonderful things in the past. But they need to adapt to the times. In order to work, they need to have a critical percentage of the employee population as members–maybe 80% or more. And in order to do that, they need to really have an enticement to join for someone who is currently not a member. For a voice talent in Boston, unless some humongous multi-year corporate contract falls in your lap from the sky, that enticement does not exist. And that’s why fi core is so incredibly attractive. Now, I’m a believer in principle and integrity, more so than most. But can I get angry at someone for going fi-core when it makes the difference between scraping by and making a decent living? No, I can’t. Ultimately, for most people, that is going to trump any ethical argument you can make. As someone else said, we’re not curing cancer, nor are we in the coal mines or putting in 16 hours at the mill, and frankly, this needs to be put in perspective. I really wish the unions would recognize this and be more understanding, because then they could devise a system that would really work, get most people to join, and thereby increase their clout. But instead there is the corporate line, the scare tactics, etc. Ultimately, the union only harms itself.

  • Alfaz
    May 5, 2012, 5:23 pm

    Is the question only about money? No way.While there are a large numebr of non-union talent who are truly professional and are worth the money, in short, choosing a union talent more often means:1. You’ve Hired a Professional. Unless we’re in a market where we HAD to join–and there’s a lot of us from radio who started this way–it took getting hired for some real, name-brand work to join AFTRA, SAG or AEA. We aren’t just putting our name out there without the experience.2. You’ve Hired a Real Talent. To get hired for these union jobs in the first place, we had to be good.3. You Help to Maintain a Standard. While those hiring may not care about it, voice talent should care more. The higher rates a union talent charges go towards health care and pensions, and allow us to earn a living wage. If voice seekers keep getting (at least average) talent to read a local radio spot for $50, we’re not helping ourselves or our clients.

  • In Deed
    June 6, 2012, 11:39 pm

    As an independent filmmaker, I’ve been frustrated beyond belief by SAG’s contracts. On the surface, it looks as though they are willing to work with indies – they have “no-low budget contracts” for films being made on small budgets. But when you get to the “fine print,” the mind boggles.
    I would have to hire an attorney to fill out the hundred of pages required, a bookkeeper to fill out the mountains of paperwork required, and keep a separate craft table for my union and non union actors . . . not to mention the problems with “quotas” and my extras, and . . .
    Then if ever I – God Forbid! – SOLD the finished product, I would owe SAG a percentage on the GROSS (not the net) – which means I could owe SAG more than I ever made, before ever getting back a penny of the money I put into the film to make it, not to mention the money put up by my friends and family.
    These rules bankrupt indie filmmakers who go through the hoops, thinking they’ve got their bases covered, only to find the papers they filled out only apply to films that are ONLY student films or films that are ONLY shown at festivals.
    Until SAG is TRULY willing to work with the indie filmmaker -especially now that decent cameras and lenses can be had for a few thousand dollars – there will continue to be a larger and larger market for non-union actors . . . or those who have gone the fi-core route.
    It’s frustrating, and sad, because from my perspective SAG appears to be most in favor of the “studio driven” feature . . . when a 200 Million Dollar budget is standard. . . . when they SHOULD favor their own members. In a market like San Francisco there are one or two big SAG projects a year – studio films. And DOZENS of non-union projects.
    In my opinion, after spending about two weeks carefully reading the “no-low budget contract,” SAG is shooting their actors in the foot and knee – while trying to protect the Hollywood Studios. Am I paying my actors? Yes. I’m paying them what SAG requires in a no-low budget feature film. I’m paying my leads double that. But I am NOT paying an attorney, or an accountant. And I will NOT owe SAG a penny once the film is done and I am trying – against all odds – to recoup the money I put into the film – in order to use it on my next film.
    And what about residuals? If my film happens to hit it big . . . (yeah – a what? .000000000001 chance?) I will do the right thing and cut my talent in on the bounty . . . and of course, they’ll get that all important exposure . . . But if it doesn’t, and I’m struggling to get it rented for .99 on netflix or sell it on Amazon and iTunes for 1.99 rental fee? Well – our 50K budget will be a lot of $1.99 rentals!
    And if we don’t make our 50K back? What kind of residuals should we be paying when the people who put up the money haven’t made their money back? When the actors (unlike the producers) have not been paid? Residuals in this case would mean less work for actors in the bay area, since we won’t be able to make the next film. Or the next. Or the next . . .

  • eric
    March 27, 2013, 2:20 am

    I know this, I’ve been a union member for going on 10 years now. Out of most of my family members and friends I am 1 of very few people who have good wages, good insurance and a retirement. People would have you believe that unions are no longer needed but I’ll say this, without unions to compare wages and benefits to how are you going to justify demanding the same. Especially when there’s people out there willing to work for less. I’ve heard a lot of people say that unions do nothing for them but take their money. While many of the same people were raised on union wages and had very few unfulfilled wants growing up. I believe unions are needed now just as much as they were back in the thirties and forties. And since union membership has been declining so have our wages and benefits. Be careful for what you wish for.