Union VS. Non-union
Which is better? Share your opinions!
The age old question… Should you join a union or remain a free agent.
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?
Many professional talent endorse joining a union in order to get all of the career benefits that are available. Union work pays nearly twice as much money and provides retirement benefits and medical coverage that would not be available to non-unionized voice talents. Not only that, but some unions even act legally on a talents behalf should the need arise.
Although most career talent opt to go the union route, there are some very successful non-union talents. They may not receive the perks and benefits of the union, but they do save money on union initiation fees, dues, and often qualify to record more diverse and interesting work for smaller projects that pay non-union fees.
When it comes down to it, choose wisely depending on your personal circumstances. If you are only looking for a part-time job or intend to moonlight occasionally, refraining from joining the union may be the best decision for you.
If you are in voice-overs for the long haul and are embracing a career in the voice acting field, the union is an attractive option that will help you meet your goals, particularly if you have a family to provide for.
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.
Here’s what others had to share about the pros and cons of joining the actor’s union.
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.– Bob
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.– Valarie
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.– Nathaniel
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.– Elinor
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.– Bryan
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.– Patty
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.– Scott
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!– Brett
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 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
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.– Ellie
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.
Thatâ€™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?– Paul
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.
More voice talent shared their reasons here.
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.– Brian
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…– Ed
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!– Kara
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
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!– Robin
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.– Ron
And, the award for the longest comment goes to Bob.
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
What does AFTRA have to say?
AFTRA add their comments to this debate.
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 â€“ 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 produce’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’s. But when it comes to acting, some people expect the equation to be the same â€“ act for 2 hours, get paid for two hours. After all, it’ not like you’re digging ditches or curing Cancer! All youâ€™re doing is talking! And in some cases, youâ€™re not even doing that!
Well, Itâ€™s a simple equation, and Iâ€™m sure most actors already know it;Value Received = Value Given.Letâ€™s say youâ€™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, Iâ€™d like another one of those hams, please! You graciously wrap up a ham just like the first one and hand it to her. â€œOh, thank you!â€ Says Mrs. M., and out she walks. â€œHey! Wait a minute!â€ you say, â€œArenâ€™t you going to pay for that? To which she responds, â€œI paid you last month! You don’t expect me to pay AGAIN, do you?
Being a good shopkeeper who doesnâ€™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, sheâ€™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 â€œIntellectual Property.â€ 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 youâ€™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 arenâ€™t being given away for free, the ad agency isnâ€™t working gratis, and the TV station doesnâ€™t give up air time for nothing.Non-union jobs simply donâ€™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 youâ€™re a ham doesnâ€™t mean you should give it away for free.Mike Kraft VP AFTRA Cleveland
Looking forward to your thoughts on this very passionate subject.
Does anyone have comments for or against either of these options?