What is a union?
What can unions like SAG, AFTRA, ACTRA, and Equity do for you, and to be considered a professional, does everyone need to be in a union?
This article about unions is one of the more controversial topics we’ll be exploring this week. Unions are part of the voiceover ecosystem, and they have done quite a bit to secure particular benchmarks and benefits on behalf of all performers who use their services.
How do you feel about the union(s)? Add your thoughts here at VOX Daily.
In the past, we have written about unions on VOX Daily to help define what role a union plays in the big picture which is the voice over industry. Unions are not unique to the voiceover industry. There are unions in nearly every field of industry. Off the top of my head, the first unions outside of the ones related to recording and performing arts are teachers unions, construction workers union, the autoworkers union, and the nurses union. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines the term “union” as:
2 : something that is made one : something formed by a combining or coalition of parts or members: as a : a confederation of independent individuals (as nations or persons) for some common purpose b (1) : a political unit constituting an organic whole formed usually from units which were previously governed separately (as England and Scotland in 1707) and which have surrendered or delegated their principal powers to the government of the whole or to a newly created government (as the United States in 1789) (2) capitalized : the federal union of states during the period of the American Civil War c capitalized : an organization on a college or university campus providing recreational, social, cultural, and sometimes dining facilities; also : the building housing such an organization d : the set of all elements belonging to one or more of a given collection of two or more sets — called also join, sum e : LABOR UNION
Unions are not just groups of people with a common purpose. A union is made up of a bureaucracy and there are certain rules and initiation rites (either a financial fee or working a union job) that go hand and hand with being a member of a union. In theory, a union embodies the Utopian idea that everyone should behave in a particular fashion, observe the same guidelines, assume the same political leanings and strive to achieve a common good as is defined by the union. As a reward for doing so and by hitting a specific financial goal, members can achieve access to health coverage, a pension, and other worthwhile benefits.
While it may sound ideal, there are issues that do arise in each union and they are generally discussed through meetings and conferences, sometimes achieving the desired outcome of resolution, sometimes not. Unions exhibit traits of strength, unity and purpose through strong membership. Without a strong membership base and reasons for everyone to abide by the ideals set out by the leadership of the union, no matter how great a union’s past, it can still fall as an organization is only as strong as its weakest link.
External factors can directly affect a union for better or worse. Oftentimes, politics or changes in the marketplace will come into play from outside of the union that cause great unrest or great joy, depending on the new reality of the day.
Many unions themselves, as mentioned above, do have distinct political views which makes the union not only an organization that adds value through membership via benefits or community, but can also alienate people within their organization who do not subscribe to the beliefs adopted by the union.
Internal conflict, though not spoken of publicly for obvious reasons, does occur. If a member decides to leave a union, there are consequences for doing so and often the stakes are very high. There is even a name for this membership designation, in some cases, a designation which enforces drastic action. Rejoining the union for some is very difficult. Whenever politics are involved it is quite seldom that things are very simple.
To get another view of the question of joining the union, I asked our friend, non-union voice talent and Canadian voice over coach Debbie Munro to share her thoughts on the matter.
Do keep in mind that the views presented in quotations below are Debbie’s views and they do not necessarily reflect the views of Voices.com:
Debbie Munro’s Opinion on Union and Non-union
To be union or not to be union, that is the question isn’t it?
I will start out by saying everyone is entitled to their opinion and both sides have valid points. Keep in mind this is all the info that I™ve heard and accumulated through various professionals.
Research for yourself.
There are many benefits to the union so let’s start with those. First off in the acting industry there are usually no salaries, benefits, retirement or rate guarantees and with non-union they are doing away with residuals (being paid for the project after the end of the contract each time it airs). The union makes sure we™re covered in these areas and fights for top wages.
There are three main unions to consider.
In the US, SAG (need only one union credit to join I believe), AFTRA (can join without any credits) and then in Canada ACTRA (you need 6 credits to become ACTRA). ACTRA is individually run from province to province.
Each union has their pros and cons. If you live in a union working town such as L.A., Vancouver, Toronto and so on, then the union works very well and its presence is strong and worth joining. If only it were that way everywhere.
In cities like San Diego, Calgary, Edmonton and others, the union has a harder time. If you are union, you can™t audition for non-union work, however you can audition for union work if you™re non-union (if you can find a producer willing to see you).
Voice over marketplaces like Voices.com promote both union and non-union work, however most of the work offered is non-union. In many cities there is a lot more non-union work than union work; that fact makes it very hard on the actor to decide which direction to go.
If you are union your rates are set out for you. There is no guessing game. If you are non-union, your agent (you) have to negotiate the rates with the production company. Sometimes they will pay you union scale, but most times do not. This is why the company goes non-union in order to save money. What this does for the union though is to make it harder to stay alive.
If too many people go non-union then the union won™t be able to work as well, and for those that are union, they survive off of their residuals and larger scale projects. They’ve earned it and non-union projects are taking it away. On the other hand, todays market is a lot tougher than it once was and joining the union isn™t as easy
anymore (with the exception of AFTRA).
Due to the Internet, work is easily accessible so producers are finding people who will do the job without the unions. Technology is changing things and competition is getting tougher. What™s the right answer? Only you know. For me, if I stayed in Edmonton the opportunities for union are slim. It was great for me when I volunteered to work my way in, and to build my education.
Sites like Voices.com gave me the opportunity I needed to get where I am today. I believe they are the starting block in todays world, unless you live in a union town. At least there is hope for newer voicers looking for a way in to work their way up to union. The bottom line is it depends on what you want for you.
I believe we get to a point where we shouldn’t be bidding against each other for rates. But we can™t forget that there is a journey along the way. A process that for many is absolutely necessary. I hope that they can one day find a happy medium, but lets face it folks, it™s all politics, and no one ever really wins in politics.
Always aim for the highest goal¦to be union, but research what you have to do to get there.”
So, that’s Debbie Munro’s opinion.
I want to reiterate that what Debbie has presented regarding the unions are her opinions and they do not reflect the opinion of Voices.com.
Ladies and gentlemen, again, I leave the floor to you.
Looking forward to hearing your opinion on the topic presented.