SAG and AFTRA finally merged this year. They chose the very obvious name of SAG-AFTRA. Since a lot of new rules are now in place, we suggest you go directly to their website to get the skinny.
Just for historical purposes, we’ll leave the following information on our site. You might find it interesting:
Since each of the acting guilds (unions) has its own website, there isn’t much need for us to go into a lot of details about their rules and regulations here. We will, however, give you a very brief overview of the differences between the three main unions that will ultimately affect your career now and in the future.
SAG (Screen Actors Guild): This guild handles any project that is shot on film, including feature films, television and commercials. It is by far the most difficult of the three guilds to join.
There are a number of ways in which an actor can become a member:
Taft-Hartley: If a producer wishes to hire a non-union actor for his union project, he has to justify to the union why he needs that particular actor, as opposed to one of the thousands who are already members. Don’t worry – it’s not quite as impossible as it sounds and they are rarely turned down when they request the Taft-Hartley waiver.
Being Taft-Hartleyed is the ideal way to get into the union. It shows that someone really, truly wanted to hire you. It doesn’t cost anyone a dime – not the actor and not the production. It’s simply paperwork. Under this, the actor is permitted to work both union and non-union for 30 days from the date of his Taft- Hartley (that’s the date of the job it relates to). As of the 31st day, the next time he books a union job, he’s considered a “must join” and is expected to pay his initiation dues. There can be one more delay in forking over the (current) $2,400, however. At this point, the actor is considered a “must pay” and will not be allowed to work another union job until he does, indeed, pay those dues. Until he actually is a paid-up member, he may continue to work non-union jobs.
Vouchers earned from “extra” work: At the present time, 3 vouchers are required in order to make an actor “SAG eligible”. If you work as an extra (or “background”) on a SAG project, you just might earn a voucher. These are limited and you must request it from the A.D. on the set. Once you have 3 of these (and it can take a long time to accumulate them), they entitle you to join the union and you may label yourself (and your resume) “SAG eligible”. The vouchers do not expire for a long, long time, but you must make sure they remain viable. Do that by checking on them every so often with the Membership Department at the union.
Crossover from a sister union: The rules for this vary, so it’s best to check with SAG to find out the exact requirements. The basics are that if you’ve been a member of either AFTRA or Equity for at least one year, you may “cross over” into SAG.
AFTRA (American Federation of Television & Radio Actors): This guild handles radio and anything on-camera that is shot on videotape. All soap operas and many commercials, industrials and web-related projects fall into this category. AFTRA is the easiest guild to join, since it is an “open” union, meaning that anyone can walk in, hand them his money and walk out a card-carrying member. They also have a very actor-friendly payment plan, as opposed to SAG, which demands everything in one payment.
Taft-Hartleys also apply with this guild, but are probably used far less frequently because of the ease of joining. Still, it’s nice to not have to come up with any dues (approximately $1,400 in 2008) on your first AFTRA job.
AEA (Actors Equity Association): This guild handles live theater (stage) only. They have completely different requirements for joining than the others. Since you really aren’t coming to Hollywood to become a theater actor, there’s no need for us to go into details here.
For further information, check out their websites:
Being a member of a guild guarantees you absolutely nothing, except that you will be allowed to work on projects that fall under their jurisdiction. It also guarantees that you will be prohibited from working on anything that is non-union (the exception being student films). If you earn enough money over your lifetime, you will probably qualify for a pension; health insurance, on the other hand, must be earned every fiscal year (you have to earn enough union wages to keep that insurance, once you have it, every single year). It’s terrific insurance, by the way, but if you lose it due to lack of income, it can be disastrous.
Should you join once you become eligible? In our opinion, you should keep the funds for the initiation dues in an interest-bearing savings account and only hand it over to a guild when you absolutely must pay. It can be a long wait between union jobs, so why hand over your hard-earned cash today if your next union job (the one that makes you a “must-join” or “must-pay”) may not happen until next year? In the meantime, change your resume to reflect your potential union status and relax, knowing that you have the money in the bank, working for you!