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When it comes to Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole, film production unions are a time-honored tradition. They hold award shows. They legitimize projects and the people working on them. They create a distinct line between who is in and who is not. You may want to join a union. In some cases, you may have to join a union – or you may be eligible to join after accepting a certain job offer and wondering if it is the right next step to take.

Whatever stage you are at, it’s important to know the facts before making the decision. Castifi has gathered the information for you to help you efficiently get started. 

What Is A Union?

According to Entertainment Law, “a union is a group of personnel who have organized together to attain their common goals”. To be more precise, unions negotiate for their members on things such as minimum compensation and ensure their members are provided health insurance, retirement plans, pensions and other benefits such as networking, mentoring, job lists, free screenings, discounts, and special events. They are also responsible for ensuring that contracts are enforced.

The very first union to be formed in the entertainment industry was the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which formed in New York City in the mid-1880s during Vaudeville-era Broadway. 

Not long after, in 1903, The Teamsters union formed. The “strongest and most diverse labor union” gets their name from the team of horses that drove their wagons back in the day. While not specifically a film production union, because their members are responsible for on-land freight delivery for all industries across the US, and film sets require large amounts of people and equipment to be transported on a daily basis, many in the teamsters union work on productions within the industry. 

Union Member on film set with horse drawn carriage

A member of the Teamster’s Union

The major unions within the industry today (SAG, DGA, PGA, etc.) arrived at the end of the film’s Silent Era in the 1930s. Artists tired of being worked to the bone by studios that kept the reaped rewards of their creative output decided to come together and fight for their rights, and for the fair and equal treatment of their workforce. This remains the core essence of the mission statements held by all the entertainment industry unions to date.

Unions vs Guilds

Before we dive in, there is a subtle distinction between a “union” and a “guild” – both of which are commonly lumped together under the frequently used term in the industry “Unions”. 

Script Magazine explains it well, “A Guild is a collective bargaining organization for independent contractors. A Union is a collective bargaining organization for employees.”

A majority of the “unions” in the industry are actually guilds. Just a bit of semantics for those of you who are curious, and maybe some knowledge you can share with your friends to show you’re in the know. 

Read on and we’ll give you an overview of what unions are, what they do, and a secret tip to save money while still reaping the benefits a union provides. 

How Many Film Production Unions Are There?

Hollywood unions can be broken down into two groups: Above the Line (individuals involved in the creative side: actors, producers, directors) and Below the Line (individuals who perform the physical production of a given film including editing). 

For an extensive overview of the organizations that exist for both above the line and below the line production workers, see our list of the major unions across the industry.

Should I Join A Union?

You now know what a union is and what it does, but what if you’re just starting out, the timing isn’t right, or you’re still unsure that joining a union is right for you?

Here it is. Our secret, money-saving quick tip: You can temporarily join a union and save loads of money! 

Some unions have what is called the Experience Roster. While you are searching for your first union job just make sure you’re on the union’s roster. You can be eligible to join the union, and eligible for union jobs, but not pay initiation fees until you get a union job saving you loads of money while gaining tons of experience!

Vin Diesel giving a thumbs up

What Are The Benefits Of Being In A Union?

According to one Quartz article, in today’s day and age “the only way to make freelance and contract work sustainable is for those at the bottom to stand together to prevent exploitation from those at the top.”

By their very nature, film production unions provide collective bargaining for individuals within the Hollywood studio system. This provides protection, stability, and predictability to workers whose jobs by design are rarely stable or predictable. 

On a broader scale, unions work to: 

  • Provide access to job rosters for productions looking for cast/crew.
  • Ensure a certain number of their members are hired for roles in each film or television production,
  • Negotiate a minimum, or “scale”, rate to ensure members are compensated fairly
    • Rates differ by the union, and by the project. The total budget of a project determines which guild or union contracts will likely be applicable. Low budget films are typically broken down into three tiers: Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3, with pay increases for each union position as the tiers, get higher. 
  • Access to business agents who negotiate and/or oversee the maintenance of union contracts.
  • Payment into health and retirement benefit pools to cover its members 
  • Access to workers compensation insurance 
  • Insurance that all Union jobs are paid through a payroll company, not 1099. (This means that all taxes and insurance fees are taken out by the employer prior to receiving payment).
  • It provides access to unemployment insurance so members can take advantage of unemployment benefits when out of work. 
  • Networking events and opportunities.
  • Workshops and job skills training
  • Lobbyists argue on behalf of the union members to Government and Industry leaders.
  • Discounts to local and national companies (varies by the union)

Being in a union is in some ways the key to the gate if you will. Membership is generally a prerequisite for working on major productions in certain capacities. 

What are the Negatives Of Being In A Union? 

In most states, you only have one chance to work after becoming a must-join. The next job you book, be prepared to fork over high initiation fees before stepping a toe on set. Additionally, once in a union, members can only work on productions with a union contract in place, even overseas. 

While collective bargaining is mostly intended for good, it does have its drawbacks. Collective bargaining agreements are, in a way, there to circumvent state laws. For instance, it’s possible for productions to legally pay SAG background actors less than minimum wage.

Can You Be In Two Film Production Unions At Once?

Yes, you can. In the film and entertainment industry specifically, most of the film production unions are actually guilds (as mentioned above), meaning they represent freelance workers and craftsmen. Whereas unions are more tied to the place of work, guilds are more geared towards the occupation being performed. 

As long as you meet the qualifications laid out by the union and pay your dues, you can join. 

Who Can Join A Union And Who Is Excluded?

Anyone can theoretically join a union. However, each union has its own stipulations and requirements that must be met for a person to be eligible for membership. Typically these require working on a certain number of union projects, or for a certain length of time with union signatory companies. 

For example, SAG-AFTRA requires one of three things:

  • Proof of SAG-AFTRA, SAG or AFTRA covered employment as a principal performer or recording artist
  • Proof of three days of SAG-AFTRA, SAG or AFTRA employment as a background actor 
  • Or employment under an affiliated performers’ union

There is a law – The Taft-Hartley Act  – that allows non-union talent to be hired on union projects. Castifi has the exclusive ability to Taft-Hartley talent that works on set. By being on Castifi’s platform, talent can increase their chances of being eligible to work on union projects and meeting the requirements to join a union. 

To find out more specifics, check out the member access page of the union you are interested in joining to find out what specific qualifications are required. 

How Much Does It Cost To Be A Union Member? 

Once you’ve met the requirements, it is a matter of paying your dues. Here are the latest prices for 2020:

Teamster Union
Dues average two-and-one-half times the hourly wage rate. For example, if you make $10 an hour, dues are approximately $25 per month. 

SAG-AFTRA
As reported on their website, annual base dues are $218.60. In addition, members pay work dues of 1.575% of all covered earnings up to $500,000, based on earnings in the previous calendar year. 

IASTE
Dues are $270.00 per quarter for Active members.

As mentioned above, an additional initiation fee is also required for new joiners to these film production unions.

We know the industry can be a hard and confusing landscape to navigate. It is Castifi’s mission to provide a helping hand, and we support the film production unions’ goal in making the entertainment industry a more fair and balanced place to work. If you found this post helpful, please share it with others and subscribe to our newsletter for more content like this, as well as upcoming events, product updates, and new product features. 

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