How Do You Actually Join SAG-AFTRA or Actors’ Equity? What Do You Get from It?
Union membership is a career goal for many actors who’ve been around the industry for quite a while. Any actor who dreams of working on a major commercial or Hollywood feature film will eventually consider joining a union to represent members by negotiating wages, working conditions, and benefits. What exactly is it, what do you get from it, and how do you become part of it?
The largest actors’ union in the United States is SAG-AFTRA, the organization created by the merger of the Screen Actors’ Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Nearly 160,000 actors and other industry professionals make up the membership of this union. Meanwhile, the Actors’ Equity Association is a labor union that represents about 50,000 stage managers and theater actors in the United States.
According to SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris, one of the best things you can do for your acting career is join the actor’s guild. Here’s how you can join one.
What Do You Get from a Membership?
According to the official SAG-AFTRA website, perks include tickets to theme parks, theaters, ski resorts, and much, much more; education loans; credit counseling discounts on the internet; life insurance; legal services; pay increases; and acting classes. The biggest perk for joining the SAG-AFTRA union is that it provides access to higher-quality acting jobs.
“SAG-AFTRA is the pathway to a professional, long-term career,” Carteris says. “The union provides wages and benefits that nonunion jobs don’t.”
On the other hand, the Actors’ Equity Association provides important protections, health insurance, pensions, collective bargaining, minimum salaries, overtime pay, negotiated rates, extra pay for additional duties, free housing on tour, health insurance, 401(k), dispute resolutions, equity-only auditions, agency regulations, member discounts, Equity news magazine, member portal website, seminars and special events, professional name protection, tax assistance through VITA, and even voting privileges. Membership also includes access the Actors Fund, Actors Federal Credit Union, Union Plus, and AFL-CIO. These organizations offer a host of additional resources such as emergency assistance, seminars, career counseling, low-cost financial services, loans, and discounts.
Being a member is a huge milestone in an actor’s life!
How Do You Join SAG-AFTRA or Actors’ union?
Here’s how you qualify.
- Get hired as a principal performer in a signatory show.
Whenever a signatory producer hires you, membership is automatically available, provided that you completed 3 days as a background actor or 1 day of employment in a principal or speaking role. Once you are cast, your producers are required to fill out a Taft-Hartley report and you become SAG-AFTRA-eligible. Once you have worked under a signatory producer, prepare proof of employment. Include documentation from a union under which you were working or provide original pay stubs / payroll printouts with your identifying information.
- Join a sister union.
If you haven’t been employment under SAG, AFTRA, or SAG-AFTRA at all, look for an affiliated performers’ union and join that for one year. The affiliate unions are Actors’ Equity Association, American Guild of Variety Artists, American Guild of Musical Artists, and the pre-SAG merger American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Upon completion, prepare proof of paid-up membership for at least one year and proof that payment was received for work as a principal performer at least once in the jurisdiction of the affiliated union.
- Work on a SAG-AFTRA New Media project.
You can actually become a producer, finance a union production, and hire yourself. This has been the “DIY” method for joining the union. Actors take advantage of SAG-AFTRA’s New Media Department and its flexibility to create their own projects (with at least one SAG-AFTRA member on board) and make themselves SAG-AFTRA-eligible in the process. SAG-AFTRA’s New Media Department requires all principal performers (and the first 10 background actors) to be covered under a SAG-AFTRA contract. This means that New Media producers grant a Taft-Hartley to any nonunion actor they cast. This is feasible if your goal is to be a multitalented entertainment entrepreneur. But if you don’t have a head for business or a good partner, don’t even consider it.
Once you’re eligible for a membership, here’s what you should do.
- Write your name, date of birth, current address, and telephone number on a separate piece of paper and enclose it with your application. Print clearly to avoid input errors. Make sure to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope for return of your documents.
- Mail your union membership application materials to SAG-AFTRA Membership Services Department – Proof of Eligibility, 5757 Wilshire Blvd., 7th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90036. You may also deliver this to the SAG-AFTRA office yourself, at the seventh floor office.
- Wait for SAG-AFTRA to return your documents in the mail before calling to ask about joining fees. New SAG-AFTRA members pay a one-time initiation fee. It was $3,000 in 2012.
- Once verification is completed, you will receive a letter of eligibility from SAG-AFTRA. You may check your eligibility from time to time using the online search on the organization’s website. The system requires you to enter your name and Social Security number. Once your eligibility is confirmed, you may join SAG-AFTRA.
Actors’ Union Association
There are 3 critical ways an actor can be eligible to join the union.
- Secure employment with an Actors’ Equity contract.
If a theater offers an non-equity actor their card, this is what that means! The application for joining Equity is only valid during the term of the contract. But getting yourself a contract is tricky. Depending on a variety of factors such as the size of the house, budget, and ticket price, theaters may be operating with a limited number of Equity contracts per show or season. The opportunities are likely to go to actors who are already members but not always. When a union contract is left over with no union members to fill it, it’s finally bestowed upon a qualified nonunion actor.
- Like SAG-AFTRA, join through a sister union.
With at least one principal contract or three background contracts worked under a sister union, you’re automatically qualified for the Actors’ Equity. Eligible unions include SAG-AFTRA, AGMA (the American Guild of Musical Artists), AGVA (the American Guild of Variety Artists) and GIAA (the Guild of Italian-American Actors). Actors wishing to join through a sister union must provide proof of membership (and good standing), evidence of jobs worked within that one-year time frame, and at least $400 towards the Equity initiation fee—which currently stands at $1100.
- Work 25 weeks in a participating theater.
The Equity Membership Candidate Program allows actors and stage managers to earn points toward eventual membership. By performing at participating Equity regional and summer stock theaters, actors can collect points toward their membership. Each week worked at a qualifying Equity theater equals one EMC point or credit. An actor needs 25 EMC points to join Equity. This is a great way to work towards union membership while gaining valuable early career experience.
Once you’re eligible, here’s what to do.
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org a written statement confirming that you meet the Actors’ Equity requirement and request an application.
- The membership department will provide a membership application after your eligibility is confirmed. You will then be asked to submit at least $400 of your initiation fee with your membership application. The initiation fee was $1,100 in 2012. Actors’ Equity allows members to take up to two years to pay the total fee.
Joining these major unions is a big decision and a big commitment! Union actors are prohibited from taking nonunion contracts. That means nonunion movies, TV shows, commercials, internet projects, student films, and even industrials are off-limits the moment you join. On the brighter side, union actors get to enjoy all the perks we mentioned above. Ask your peers for advice and think this through.