There are dozens of labor unions in the United States that represent all facets of professionals within the entertainment industry, and it can be tough to keep them all straight, much less make the decision to join one. Large unions such as the Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild, and Directors Guild all tend to garner the most attention, but it is important to familiarize oneself with all entertainment unions, if for no other reason than to be able to hold an informed conversation with your colleagues and/or employees. These unions represent everyone on set. For example, Local 600 protects camera operators while members of the wardrobe team rely on Local 769.
Different guilds offer different benefits, so if you are a multi-talented individual, you’ll need to weigh your perspective unions against one another or decide if the benefits are complimentary enough (or singular enough) to warrant joining both.
I am a member of the Producers Guild of America, which despite the word “guild” in the title, is not a union but an association. Then there are also societies for many different types of professions such as casting (CSA) and cinematography (ASC). For this article, I am purely focused on the labor unions – defined broadly as organizations that represent groups of workers in collective bargaining, disputes and will even lobby federal and state governments on behalf of their membership. Beyond that, being in a union can allow you to work union jobs – which tend to pay more and provide benefits related to safety and workplace improvement.
For example, union productions must feed you, give you breaks, and will face financial penalties if you receive late meals or work significant overtime. On a non union production, anything goes. That is not to say that on all non-union projects producers will take advantage of their crew, but there have been instances where crew members have been hurt or even killed because producers didn’t follow union mandated safety rules.
“Well, that’s a no brainer,” you might think, “Time to go union!”
Not necessarily. There are many cities in the United States where local or state tax incentives may have brought large numbers of union productions to their region, forcing non-union projects to the back-burner. It’s possible that the only jobs available in your town may all be union. That’s a case in which joining a union is a no brainer. However, in general, you want to leave yourself open to as many job opportunities as possible for as long as possible, until the works comes looking for you more than you go looking for it– this goes for any freelance profession.
Different unions have different rules on this, but after a certain amount of time working a union job as a non-union crew member, you are often forced to join the union to continue work on that project or any union project. This is a best case scenario as you have several months or even longer of union work in front of you reducing the risk of joining. However, if you have only worked a few union commercials and just barely passed the threshold for membership, the decision is a tougher one. It gets tricky when there is no guarantee you will continue acquiring union work, because having to turn down non-union jobs when you aren’t making any money is not an attractive route. For example, the Screen Actors Guild rarely allow members to work non-union projects once they have joined the guild and that is a regulation they enforce. Actors belong to a pool of workers that is highly oversaturated, and to make it even tougher of a decision, unlike other onset jobs, they typically need to be union to even be considered. But back to the crew!
The cost of joining unions is also not cheap, so the projects you are getting better justify the joining fee.
The international cinematographers union (Local 600) can cost as much as $10,000 to join depending on your job classification. This is a lot of money, but access to steady higher paying union work can increase your income dramatically to help cover the initial dues. You may book 5 days of work that cover that fee after joining as a commercial Director of Photography.
The million dollar question: when is the right time to join a union? The right time to join is when you have access to union work and you are a part of a crew network that can help sustain that momentum during the year. The wrong time to join a union is after one or two union gigs that were one-off projects with no potential for future employment in a town where it is rare to see a film or network TV show come by.
Joining a union can be a difficult and expensive proposition, but it also lends legitimacy to you as a professional. Having a union membership means you have been through hundreds of hours of work in your field and that you have specialized skills and other training that makes you a rare commodity. (There are exceptions, such as SAG, where an actor can be Taft-Hartley’d after one spoken line in a New Media Project.) If your union association is not hard won, joining is likely less worth the cost of joining and the cost of dues. There are approximately 7,500 members of the cinematographers union and compared with the industry at large, that makes those members an elite and exclusive bunch. If I hire a Local 600 cam op, I have certain expectations for their caliber of work.
For producers, union members are more expensive, but they also come with that proven skill set, which is worth shelling out those extra dollars to ensure a well-conditioned production. At the end of the day, the only litmus test you need is determining whether membership will mean more work or less work, because no matter how cool you want to seem to your fellow alums, or how badly you want an acronym to appear after your name in the credits, you need to be able to feed yourself first.