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To join or not to join? A case for SAG-AFTRA membership

By Graeme Spicer

Edge Studio Managing Director

As the business of voice over has evolved and grown in the past 20 years, the role of SAG-AFTRA in a voice actor’s career has also evolved. It is now not only possible, but even common for a voice actor to make a good living without ever booking a union job. Many newer genres of voice over — including e-learning, web narrations, and many videogames, to name a few — are not generally produced under SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction, and are therefore open to non-union actors.

However, as a working voice actor and as a member of the Edge Studio leadership team, I feel that union membership is something to which many of us should aspire. This position might be controversial to some, but I’d like to present the case for SAG-AFTRA membership.

Let me state that SAG-AFTRA membership will not be right for some voice actors. Perhaps voice acting is a part-time pursuit, without the intention of making it a full-time career. You may well live in a small market, where the number of voice over jobs produced under union jurisdiction is minimal, or non-existent. Or you are specifically interested in pursuing a voice over genre that is not, and probably will never be, under union contract. Telephony, maybe. Or museum tours.

But for voice actors who are mainly interested in commercial work, broadcast narration, promo/trailers, or audiobooks; the decision on whether or not to join SAG-AFTRA will be a one you’ll face during your career.

The predecessors of SAG-AFTRA – the Screen Actors’ Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists – advocated effectively on behalf of their members for decades, to ensure that actors were paid fairly and promptly for their efforts, were always safe and comfortable on-set or in-studio, and had a forum through which they could bring forward concerns about their employers or their working conditions without fear of reprisal. The work done from the establishment of these organizations in the 1930s through to the 1980s is the reason why in 2015 actors don’t generally worry about being mistreated – union and non-union alike.

There are now other reasons why voice actors typically seek SAG-AFTRA membership. Generous healthcare coverage, a stable pension plan, pre-negotiated rates and residuals, and a guarantee of prompt payment for their work are all compelling benefits.

But I feel there are other, less tangible reasons why joining SAG-AFTRA is a goal that should be pursued by many voice actors. I personally strive towards being the best in any activity I pursue. As a voice actor, I want the opportunity to audition for and win the very best jobs. I want to compete against the best voice actors in the world.

The best jobs – national television commercials, narration of documentaries and other TV shows, most animation – are produced under union contract. And the best actors – the ones that I want to consider as my peers someday – are union actors. Therefore, SAG-AFTRA membership is on my list of goals.

What is the final intangible reason why union membership matters? I think it’s a rite of passage. It’s a hard-won honor that proves to you and to the community that you’ve achieved a certain level of success. Your union card indicates that you care about the craft of voice acting, and are now competing at the top of the field. It proves you’ve arrived.

Let’s be clear, SAG-AFTRA doesn’t make it easy to sign on. It’s expensive ($3000 initiation fee plus an estimated $1000+ annual dues dependent on your income). It’s difficult to get union work as a non-union actor. (You generally don’t even hear about union [production / script / character] auditions unless you have a union agent.) SAG/AFTRA’s
“Global Rule 1” and “No Contract/No Work” Rule (which the union says are “substantially the same”) are big disincentives for successful non-union actors considering joining. And the paperwork involved in many activities, not least of which is trying to convert non-union projects to union jurisdiction, can be daunting to those unfamiliar with the processes.

But these barriers are like the trials faced by Frodo on his quest to throw The Ring into the Cracks of Doom – the journey is often worth the sacrifice.

Even with joining SAG-AFTRA as an ultimate goal, the timeline will vary widely dependent on the specific actor and their career trajectory. Some actors may take many years to join. Others may join in a few months. Everyone’s situation is unique to them.

When should an actor join the union? The general consensus is – “you’ll just know.” It may be because a large/lucrative project materializes that requires SAG-AFTRA membership. It may be because you’ve worked a few smaller union jobs and are now in a “must-join” situation to continue working on union projects. Maybe a new relationship develops with an agent with strong connections to union-sanctioned projects. Or maybe you just feel lucky, and you can sense a big union project is just around the corner!

Joining SAG-AFTRA may not be in your future. But consideration of the benefits (and drawbacks) of union membership is worth the time to explore. As voice actors, we work hard to master the craft of using our voices to tell stories and to sell products. Why not aspire to work on the best projects, and with the best voice actors in the world?

Your comments, stories and suggestions are welcome. Please email me at [email protected]!