When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get In the Union
When starting any new project, the creative goal is clear: to bring all of our creative skills together to tell a great story. But there is also a different aim that I want to work towards with others: to bring our knowledge, experiences and skills together to make our present workplace culture and for the actors who will come after us. This is where the unions come in! I’ll give you a breakdown of how they’re structured, what sorts of issues they address, a few things you might not know that they offer, why you would need one, the fees associated with them and slight differences between the four big ones Equity AUS/NZ, Equity UK, SAG-AFTRA, and ACTRA/UBCP. Alrighty, let’s get organized!
It sometimes feels like we’re in an industry that (with all its complexities) divides and conquers us. We don’t go and clock in at the same building every day, see the same faces every morning, or talk to the same colleagues in the same meetings and break rooms like a ‘standard workplace’ – for lack of a better phrase. In other words, there’s less opportunities and structures to foster group accountability. But being contracted workers doesn’t mean we should be treated as disposable or transient, and neither should we see ourselves as exempt from being able to converge and organize.
But how? You may ask.
Good bloody question, I say.
How can we possibly feel as a part of a team or collective when, in its nature, even just the pursuit of acquiring work can feel disconnected and isolating. And then once we’re in work, rarely are we working with the exact same group of people on a project more than once.
Being a collective for just the length of a project isn’t good enough, we need to be able to feel connected and stronger together for the span of our entire careers to ensure that true accountability happens in our line of work. I thrive in an environment where I am but one member of a team of people all working towards a collective aim. And this is exactly what the actor’s trade unions are for.
Skip to Specific Unions:
What Is a Union?
Without the union, I wouldn’t be working as an actor today. The union is a body of people from within our industry that brings performers from all disciplines and backgrounds together to discuss, problem solve, and collectively stand for what we believe in. Equity: as it’s known to actors in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. SAG-AFTRA and AEA: as it’s known to actors in the US. ACTRA/UBCP for the Canadians. NGA for the Nigerians and the FIA for actors world-wide. Wherever you are there is a body of people fighting tooth and nail for actors to:
- Feel safer in our work
- Be paid better.
- Be represented fairly.
- Be stronger as a united front.
Actors unions (just the same as any other trade union) are a group led by an elected body of members from within our own industry to fight for our rights as performers. As a member, you have the right to vote for your union leaders.
Not varying greatly from standard trade unions, an actor’s union consists of an elected leader, their associated bargaining committees, delegate staff who do site visits and union representatives who are also working for the company you’ve been contracted to work for. And depending on where you are in the world, this structure is sometimes broken down further into elected regional leaders, representatives and teams.
What Do Unions Do?
The unions step in on our behalf to discuss working conditions, do collective bargaining on unfair contracts, air grievances related to discrimination of any kind, misconduct of any kind, and even fight on our behalf in the case of unfair dismissal. Unions understand that, not all, but some workplaces within our industry don’t have sufficient structures in place to deal with your grievances, and that there can even be a culture of suppression and belittling that disempowers you from speaking up for yourself. This is particularly important if you’re freelancing (not represented by an agent) or you’re a student and feel unsupported by the institution in which you’re studying.
Unions work to make sure you don’t feel disempowered from speaking up and feeling backed up by your own community, regardless of how long you’ve been in the industry, or whether you were contracted for a few hours on a particular job, or several years.
Arts and entertainment are not exempt from the fight against outdated practices that have been around since man discovered the art of exploiting worker’s rights. And now add the ever-looming pressure of capitalism: creatives are expected to create faster, cheaper, more easily consumable work that can return a bigger profit than ever before–straight into the pocket of facilitators. That can mean some businesses will find subtle (and not very subtle) ways to make employees work longer hours, for less pay and sometimes in unsafe conditions. Unions work to make sure you feel supported and empowered to speak up if something is awry, regardless of how long you’ve been in the industry for or whether you were contracted for a few hours on a particular job, or several years.
The action that the union then takes not only improves your working conditions but ensures that the same issues don’t happen again for the next professional who walks through that company’s doors. And depending on the nature of the issue, could also begin the process to create binding change that then becomes part of our industry standard practice.
Major Differences Around the World
In the future of your career as an actor you may be required to work across multiple countries and continents. Trade unions across the world work towards the same goal, but the industries in which they operate are all different. These industries differ in money (the sheer amounts being circulated and the funding sources), size, rules, and how long they’ve been around. On paper, working as an actor in the US compared to Australia looks like you’re working on two different planets, so I’m going to focus on the main differences between the big four: AUS, UK and US/Canada. I’ll break down how they’re structured, how actors trade unions are weaved into the fabric of the industry across each of these countries, what part you as an individual plays in the union, and what part they play in your career.
For the Aussie Actors
I present to you, Actors Equity as a part of MEAA. She’ll be here until forever.
Admissions and Fees
You sign up online or over the phone – easy as that. And no upfront admission fee, only monthly fees that you can opt to be charged weekly instead. And there’s discounted rates if you’re a student, have a disability or work exclusively as an extra.
What Has the MEAA Done Thus Far?
Some of the achievements for Equity in Australia have been colossal and some have been small and unbeknownst to most – but have had hugely significant ripple effects throughout the industry at large.
It started 1940 when local ballet dancers were having to pay to appear in Colonel De Basil’s Ballet Russe at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, and some weren’t getting paid at all. Each and every dancer was unionised within hours of meeting Equity president Hal Alexander, and every single performer was paid award rates and only Equity members were employed. And most recently, Equity has secured their first ever agreement that ensures 10 days cultural leave per year for all performers on Australia’s production of Hamilton the musical. And this will no doubt create a seismic shift and set a new standard across Australia’s entertainment industry.
Rehearsal pay on subsidised theatre gigs being one that is so monumental and seems so essential, but we must never forget that it wouldn’t exist without trade union involvement within our industry. As the unionised performers who came before us fought for this, we should never take it for granted. Right down to making it a requirement that you have a place to prepare your own meals on touring theatre gigs is another. It seems small, but it is so essential for the financial and physical wellbeing of performers on a massive performance and travel schedule.
Not to mention the sexual harassment and bullying policy, a travel allowance, a living away from home allowance, local content quotas, standard safety guidelines for theatre performers, higher rates for performance weeks of more than eight shows, ad roll-over fees. These are things we come to expect from the companies that employ us, but these standards aren’t created by them – they’re fought for, picket-lined and negotiated by the union and its members. It’s done for the people, by the people.
The MEAA Also Does What?
When you become an active union member, aside from the fight to make our workplaces better, fairer and safer: the MEAA offer a ridiculous number of services to help cultivate and sustain career longevity. This includes:
- Legal aid
- Help with organising your superannuation and improving your financial literacy
- Access to specialized accountants
- Contract templates for indie films and theatre productions
- Journey protection insurance (which is no longer covered by workers compensation in Australia)
Additionally, the unions offer ways to bring us together for discussion more often. They understand that by virtue of engagement with like minded performers and industry leaders, you as a performer connects to something much bigger than just yourself. No matter how long you’ve been in this industry you become a part of a legacy of actors who have come before us to fight for our rights and improve our working conditions.
The unions believe we are stronger together, they sure as hell walk that talk. In Australia, Equity MEAA holds regular meetings solely for the aim to break down racial inequality within our industry and holds open discussion with its own members on how we can create systemic change from the ground up as well as from the top down. Alongside this they also:
- Hold regular free acting workshops with industry professionals online and in person to help expand your skill set.
- Hold seminars and Q&As with casting agents and directors.
- Hold seminars about mental health practices specifically for performers.
- Provide access to and information on how to engage with the actor’s benevolent fund.
- Provide access to spaces for self-taping.
- Give discounted rates for conference room hire.
- And they provide many different ways you as an actor can have more community engagement such as reading to kids at your local primary school right down to campaigns you can get actively involved in and engage your local community with.
Did I Hear You Say I Can Claim My Union Fees as a Tax Deduction?
You sure as hell did.
In Australia no matter what your profession is, your union fees are tax deductible. And rightly so it should be.
How It Works and How You’re Protected
Different to the US system – which we’ll get into later – in Australia, jobs won’t be classified into union or non-union work. In Australia, a job will either comply with legal industry standards or they won’t. If you’re an actor working on a job and something seems a bit suss in your contract or working conditions, then the MEAA is there to have a look over it for you and negotiate with your employer or go to your working location to investigate anything that doesn’t seem to be above board. And your employer is not allowed to discriminate against you in any way because you’ve engaged the MEAA on a matter, you’ll be kept anonymous in this process.
The MEAA can act on your behalf and on behalf of other union members should they want to be included in any sort of negotiation process, but the union cannot work on the behalf of anyone working on the job if they’re not a union member. They can indirectly benefit from any changes that may happen as a result of the union stepping in.
Additionally, the union cannot engage on a matter that occurred before you joined the union. That’s why it’s wise to join as soon as you start working rather than waiting for something to happen to then become a member.
For Actors in the US (or Planning to Go to the US)
Ladies and Gents, I give you SAG-AFTRA and AEA
Admission and Fees
Alright, this is a bit of a different ball game to Equity Australia and even Equity UK. Essentially, you need to be invited to join SAG you need to have had three days working as background actor or one day working as a credited speaking role on a film covered by a SAG-AFTRA bargaining agreement.
Alternatively, you can join SAG-AFTRA if you have been a fully paid member for at least one year of an affiliated union such as AEA, ACTRA, AGVA or AGMA. When you’re approved you then pay an initiation fee of US $3000 US + half your annual dues (US $111) + half of your work dues (1.575 of your covered earnings up to $500,000 in the previous calendar year).
I won’t say I understand the method to what seems like a mad system, but I can say I understand the reason for it. They need to know you are absolutely a working actor and will be pursuing this as a career. This is because they have a major stronghold they have in the industry and the benefits SAG-AFTRA offers is enormous (we’ll get to these later), and they need to ensure people who are joining are in it for reals.
AEA is for the theatre actors working in the US. There are three ways to join:
- By virtue of signing an equity contract job, you can register for the AEA. But your membership will only be as valid for as long as your contract is. This seems beneficial only if you’re signing a very long contract, as you’ll need to pay the full fee.
- If you’ve been a fully paying member of a sister union for at least a year. These include; SAG-AFTRA, AGMA, AGVA or GIAA. You’ll need a written statement from your union and $600 towards your initiation fee.
- The EMC program – when you get a job in an equity theatre you pay a $200 registration fee, then you provide evidence of having worked at least 25 weeks in an Equity affiliated theatre. Once that is completed, they credit that initial $200 towards your initiation fee and you can proceed to becoming a full member, even if you have no equity work lined up in future.
The initiation fee is US$1700 to be paid over a two-year period (will go up to $1800 effective 1 Jan 2022). And then your annual fees of $174 + 2.5% of gross earnings under Equity contract.
Are Your Acting Union Fees Tax Deductible In the US?
This is where it gets a bit tricky, but I want to give you as much info as I could acquire. Some actors I know who are based in the US don’t even know the answer to this one. The rules in the US around this stuff seem to change like the weather, depending on the economic climate – forgive the pun. So please please triple check this with a trusted accountant before lodging your tax return in the US.
As it currently stands: a change to the tax laws in 2018 means you can no longer deduct union fees as an expense unless you’re self-employed. This will be applicable until 2025. Although ***some*** states will allow deductions for show biz expenses related to work. You can find more information about this here. Please please triple check this with a trusted accountant before lodging your tax in the US, and also check here to see if the exemption applies in your home state.
“This all seems so complicated and expensive, why do I need to join SAG or AEA?”
As far as money goes SAG-AFTRA definitely has a lot of it and therefore more bargaining power, resources and slightly more benefits. As it currently stands, if you’re an actor and you want to set yourself up for the long haul in the US – you need to work towards getting that SAG card as soon as you can. And this is for two very fundamental reasons, and these are (in no order of importance). (a) You don’t like being exploited, and (b) You don’t want anyone you’re working with to be exploited either.
On top of all of the standards such as strength in numbers, collective bargaining power, legal aid, workshops, member seminars and discounts SAG-AFTRA also has; a specialised casting network called iActor, the SAG-AFTRA Conservatory, the SAG-AFTRA foundation, and also a pension plan. But the big and most important one here is health cover.
When you’re a union member contracted to work on a union job, your employer makes a contribution towards your health care on top of your wage. I don’t need to tell anyone in the US (or anywhere) how important health care is, but all the usual benefits of being a union member aside, having secure health cover as an actor when you’re in between gigs is huge.
I cannot understate the importance of this having had a back injury while working as a performer in the US. I was lucky enough to be covered by my employer’s health care. But hadn’t I been covered, I would’ve been – for want of a better phrase – in some real deep shit financially. And I don’t want you, lovely reader to be in any shit. Which leads me to the next category…
If You’re an Actor Moving to the US
I’m talking about the actors going in hot for the three-month gamble. With a pocketful of savings and a dream their heart. If that’s you, I’m high fiving you in my mind because I have mad respect for actors who do that. Please know it can take some time to get invited to join SAG, and until then do not stress – you will be auditioned for union jobs. Your agent/management will specify in each brief they send you if it’s a union or non-union gig. What I gather from my mates in the US, if you’ve got an agent worth their salt then 99% of the time you’ll only be sent up for union gigs.
Regardless, it’s still incredibly important for you to know these details before signing any contract in North America and Canada on a job. Absolutely clarify this with your management first. Is it a union job or a non-union job you’re auditioning for/contracted for, and what does this mean for you either way? This ensures that you know on a base level whether your pay is on par with minimum standards or not, and how much you’ll be looked after for the wonderful hard work you’re going to put into this gig.
If you land a major role in a US SAG approved screen gig before heading over, your management and employer will be working to firstly get your VISA sorted, and also getting you in on a Taft-Hartley. I would strongly recommend asking your management about how to get the ball rolling on SAG approval, particularly if you’re planning on remaining in the US to pursue future acting opportunities once you’ve finished the gig. They could credit your involvement in a similar union wherever you are in the world (if this is the case for you), and also any previous credits you may have had. This isn’t a guarantee, but I have heard of this working for some actors before.
For Actors in the UK
The impetus behind joining the union as an actor in the UK is similar to that of joining in the union in Australia, or even New Zealand. The film, TV and theatre industries in the UK are not completely structured around, or dependent on, the overseeing eye of the union. And your opportunities for work aren’t drastically changed if you’re a unionized actor or non-union actor. This is great for producers, but not so much for the rights of all workers as a collective.
The less unionised any performing arts industry is in any country, the more opportunity there is to underpay and overwork the performers within it. If there’s a serious issue that needs resolving or underpaying that needs rectifying – a union rep will be laughed at if they address an employer saying they represent 10% of the cast, and ultimately the performers will ultimately suffer. But a union rep who goes to a producer saying they represent 75% of the cast, then my friends you will get your employers attention. And then you can get the wheels in motion to make some proper change.
Admissions and Fees
Fees for joining Equity UK as a full member are currently at 33 GBP. And your dues are based on your gross annual income, categorised into 10 different price points ranging from 11.93 GBP per month to 237 GBP per month. And of course, there are heavily discounted rates for actors on long service leave, retired actors, child actors, actors over 65 with 21+ years of service, and if you’re going to the UK to study – students and recent grads. You can find all of the updates and current rates here.
Fees are substantially less than the US, but of course as we know, we’re dealing with two unions with very different sizes and capacities. Although, this shouldn’t be a deterrent from joining. Especially if you’re moving to the UK, you’ve never worked there before and you don’t know many other actors. Equity UK is broken down into local districts, wherever you are within the UK, and even within London itself. That way you can get to know who’s around you and who your local reps are. You can get active and get involved in a way that is specific to where you are locally and the relevant issues that may arise.
Being a part of the union is a great way to be an active member of an already existing community and to have a point of reference to learn exactly what your rights are working in the UK. As a quick reference point, here’s a link to all of the current Equity standard performance rates for theatre actors in the UK.
UK Equity’s Involvement in Your Work
The gigs you do in the UK aren’t put into classifications of union or non-union work. This also goes for Australia and New Zealand. The union can engage with your employer on absolutely any gig you work on. And you definitely won’t be sidelined in a negotiation process should it need to take place – you can be actively involved in this process if you wish to be so.
They can only bargain for you, re-negotiate or address working conditions issues with your employer if you were a paying union member from the date you signed your contract on that particular gig. If you weren’t a member when you signed the contract or your membership was temporarily suspended, unfortunately the union can’t get involved on your behalf, but they can give you guidance as to what you can do.
Additionally, if there’s another actively unionised cast member who is also looking to go down the same route, the union can also fight on their behalf. It’s always best to stay an active member of your union in case something happens on a job. This ensures you’ll be protected, rather than waiting for something to go wrong before you join.
For Actors in Canada
And for our Canadian and West-Canadian actors we have… (drum roll)… ACTRA and the UBCP (Union of British Columbian Performers).
As we know, issues in relation to being a performer are consistent throughout the entertainment industry at large, regardless of the country you live in. And there’s definitely not a one size fits all solution as the laws, sanctions and hardships around our work vary from country to country and even state to state – hence the creation of the UBCP.
Who are ACTRA/UBCP?
When it comes to unions, the more local you can get the better. UBCP is a subunit of ACTRA that was formed to target issues local to British Columbian performers and workplaces. And for West Canadian performers looking for a union to join I would look no further. ACTRA is a performers specific union that covers Canadian actors nation-wide.
ACTRA UCBP could not be more explicit about what you deserve as a performer. They state that you as a professional performer in Canada are entitled to
- The right to fair wage
- The right to compensation for use of the performer’s image and performance
- The right to sae and acceptable working conditions
- The right to artistic freedom
- The right to maintain control over artistic output
- The right to be treated respectfully as an integral component of the production industry and as a contributing member of the Canadian cultural fabric.
Admissions and Fees
The ACTRA and UBCP website has an extremely clear and concise breakdown of how to join, which category of membership you’ll need and how much it’ll cost.
To have union protection as a background performer you’ll need:
- To fill out an application form
- Proof of 15 days of work as a background performer in the last 12 months on union productions.
- Proof of Canadian citizenship or proof of permanent residency
- Your smoking gun of a headshot
And then it’s simply a matter of paying your annual dues once your application is finalized. Which for background performers is only CA$30 per year!
To become an apprentice member you’ll need:
- To fill out an application form
- Proof of at least one qualifying credit on a union job.
- Proof of Canadian citizenship or proof of permanent residency
- Your drop-dead gorgeous headshot
And then once you’re a member, payment of your annual dues which is CA$75.00
To become a full member you’ll need
- To fill out an application form
- Proof of at least three qualifying credits. Your first credit can be an education credit or 1600 hours (or 200 days) work as a background member. But the last two must be acting credits
- Proof of Canadian citizenship or permanent residency
- And again, your stunning headshot.
Your full member annual dues once you’re in are CA$195.00.
*Please keep an eye on the cost of these annual dues, as unions worldwide have altered fees to adapt to the fluctuating economy since March 2020.
You can qualify for a temporary membership if your proof of residency is taking a while to process. (Take note performers from other countries moving to Canada for work). You can find more about that here.
If you’re a full Canadian citizen/have permanent residency and you’re a full member of one of their sister unions, you also have eligibility to apply for a full ACTRA/UBCP membership. Some of these sister unions include CAEA (Equity) and SAG-AFTRA. Contact your local union branch for more info on this one.
How ACTRA is Broken Down
When you thought that the UBCP couldn’t be more local, then think again. ACTRA is broken down into branches across Canada which gives the specifics that you as a performer will need. They’ve organizes and categorized for each local branch who and where are your local casting agents, talent, casting directors, workshops and also what’s specifically shooting in your area. And as a part of ACTRA, UBCP is a part of this fantastic breakdown.
Other local branches as a part of ACTRA include:
So no matter where you are in Canada, getting the specifics you need (which is indispensable time saving info if you’re new to the area) is made so much easier by this brilliant localised intel.
What Does UBCP/ACTRA Do?
The UBCP/ACTRA will be bargaining for performers on a regular basis to ensure that you won’t be exploited by your employers. Your UBCP union membership also gives you full ACTRA benefits which is a huge range of discounts and access to Union savings (a not-for-profit union run benefits programme), 30% IMDB Pro subscriptions, and a whole lot more you can find here.
ACTRA/UBCP also has made it super easy to access how you can become an organiser, how to become an ACTRAvist, community outreach, and also the Member Benefits Trust which provides extended health benefits (including dental) to ACTRA/UBCP members earning a minimum of CA$4,500 per year. It provides a long-term disability plan for members who earn a minimum of CA$35,000 per year, and the MBT Insurance Program which is for all members regardless of what they earn.
They’ve made the links to find information about workplace sexual harassment policies, stunt codes of conduct, policy around best practice for scenes involving nudity, intimacy, simulated sex, and sexual violence, and also reciprocal agreements with other unions incredibly easy to find on their website. Just so you’re not on the phone for hours to get answers you may need. And information around these policies are incredibly important for you to have easy access to as a performer.
And, lastly, they do make this incredibly explicit on the membership application form, but I just wanted to make sure you remember that similar to SAG’s model, once you’re in as a member you are signing an agreement that means you’ll only work on union approved jobs. Straying from this will result in loss of your union membership. But also similarly to SAG’s model, if there’s no union then there’s no business.
Conclusion: Why We as Actors Should All Be Unionised
From my experience being a member of two unions across two completely different lines of work, the more people that join the better and safer the work is. A union with more members has more manpower, influence, funds and therefore more time to negotiate and human resources in which to facilitate said negotiations. This means we can organise efficiently to ensure we can easily approach employers to help set new standards for ourselves and for the performers who are to come after us. A smaller union is no problem: but it means that approaching issues that occur consistently, by hundreds of companies without strength in numbers, well let’s just say things move a hell of a lot slower.
The entertainment industry we work in as actors is widespread and operates across multiple forms, and as are the issues we face. When a problem is widespread and consistent it is incredibly hard to isolate the issue and approach it from the outside in. But the benefit and power we as actors have is that we are on the inside of it all, and when we unionise, we have strength in numbers, we have very real power to make our workplaces safer and more equitable in complete solidarity with one another. The more performers join, the more a diverse range of voices can be heard, the stronger we become and then more equitable our industry becomes for everyone.
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