What Are the Unions SAG and AFTRA?
Whenever I consult with clients, the two most frequent questions asked of me are: "What is the purpose of the unions and how do I get an agent?"
SAG stands for Screen Actors Guild, while AFTRA stands for American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The main purpose of both unions is to better the wages and working conditions of their members.
In this respect, they negotiate the terms of contracts, length of working days, turnaround time, required school hours for minors, percentages that producers must pay into Union pension and health insurance benefits, etc. The union guarantees that payment will be made and acts on the performer's behalf when terms of the contract are breached. Neither union is an employment or placement agency.
SAG has exclusive jurisdiction over performers in feature motion pictures and productions shot on film. SAG shares jurisdiction with AFTRA regarding television commercials, programming, and industrial/educational programs. AFTRA presides over performers in live and recorded television, radio programs and commercials, all audio only, and musical recordings. AFTRA shares jurisdiction with SAG with respect to industrial/educational films, television programming and commercials. The unions franchise talent agencies and union members may only work with these approved agencies. The union requires that the agent's commission be limited to 10% of the gross work under union contracts.
So how do you become a member?
With AFTRA, it is easy. You fill out the forms, pay your iniatation fees and dues and you are now an AFTRA member. SAG is more difficult. In order to work in a SAG job you must have a SAG card, but you can't get your SAG card until you've worked in a SAG job (the old Catch 22).
What does one do to become a SAG actor? First of all, it is important to be a great auditioner. Employers who are signed to a union contract are called "Signatories," and every Signatory is required to give preference in hiring to qualified union performers. However, if no union member is found that fits the part, production companies may audition and hire a non-union member, therefore giving them "Taft-Hartley" status. This means that the performer has 30 days to work under a union contract, enjoying all the benefits before having to join the union. After 30 days, if a performer intends to perform more SAG work, membership is mandatory.
My advice is if you are over five years old and have the opportunity to join SAG do so immediately or you may lose out on great auditions and jobs! Important to remember is that once you become a union member, you may not work on non-union jobs. This is called Rule 1 in SAG and Rule A in AFTRA.
How do you know if a production company is "Signatory"?
A good rule of thumb is if someone sticks a camera or microphone in your face, the company is probably covered by a union contract. This includes voicemail and interactive disc voices too. If you are not sure, call the union for verification at (415)391-7925.
In simplest terms, the unions are for the benefit of the actor, young and old. Until you are a union member, you are not considered a professional in the industry. Virtually every television show, film and commercial you will ever see employs union talent. The union gets us higher wages, better working conditions, per diems, travel and wardrobe expenses, a health and pension plan, credit union, and great food on shoots. Most important of all, they keep track of and send us our residual payments for all work done. The unions will handle any grievances which arise under the contracts, playing the "heavies" when we as actors can not. I'm still getting several checks a year from my first film, "Raid on Entebbe" with Charles Bronson which I made in 1976 and it is like finding money on the street! These checks alone have paid for my dues over the years!
The unions will be your best advocates. The staff are our friends and work hard for us. If you have questions, they are happy to take your calls. Good luck and Be the Star you Are!
For more information, get Cynthia Brian's The Business of Show Business at the StarStyle Store.