The SAG-AFTRA Merger: Why you should join AFTRA. Now.

by Ed

So unless you’ve been stuck under the Hollywood equivalent of a rock (Which would be the Betty Ford Clinic, where they don’t allow outside calls… Great place though, ask for the Robert Downey Jr. suite),  then you’ve probably heard that SAG and AFTRA are merging.

Which means you non-union actors have 17 days to join AFTRA.

Allow me to explain to not just you but to the non-industry people reading this blog (i.e., my Mom). Forgive me if this gets a little remedial, I’ll try and keep it brief.

So in H-Town we’ve got two big unions that cover actors, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). Back in the day, SAG was the big powerhouse that was in charge of anything that was shot on film (which was 100% of movies and primetime television), while AFTRA covered anything shot on video, like game shows, the news, soap operas, etc.

Technically there is a third union, Actors’ Equity Association, aka AEA (or just “Equity”). They govern theatre. They are really important in places like New York, London, and Ashland, Oregon. But this is LA, and we hate theatre. Too much memorization and you have to get it right all in one take.

AFTRA really wanted to merge with SAG for a long time, but SAG was always “pffft, screw that, we gain nothing but a bunch of game show hosts and weathermen. Call us when they invent weathergirls”. SAG was the jock that Molly Ringwald AFTRA always wanted to be with no matter how much SAG looked down on her.

(I have no idea who Equity represents in this scenario. Jon Cryer or Anthony Michael Hall I guess… But it’s not important to the discussion right now)

So AFTRA wants to get with SAG, SAG says no. But then something huge happens.

Digital Video.

Suddenly the image quality of video goes through the roof. You don’t need a $30,000 Panavision camera anymore. You don’t need to buy, develop, or store film anymore. And you can edit it all on a Mac. The cost of making a good looking show drops dramatically, and before you know it all your TV is being shot on video. AFTRA governed video.

“Fine” says SAG. “AFTRA can have TV; we were always about movies, really. And digital video isn’t good enough to do movies yet.”

Until about 14 hours later, when it was. Now SAG still has jurisdiction over movies even if they’re shot on DV, but the advent of digital video combined with the ubiquity of DVD’s meant the cost of making a feature film and delivering it to the consumer went down dramatically too. Now I’m not talking about big budget, high quality movies here. I’m talking about the millions of hours of crap available for direct streaming on Netflix. Those super cheap exploitation movies, all of which were made NON-UNION, and this segment has exploded in the last decade. And this has hurt SAG a LOT.

Let’s say you’re the SyFy channel. You can license one good sci-fi film made under SAG contract, or for the same money you can license ten crappy non-union movies. Oh, and you need to fill twenty hours of airtime. How are you gonna spend that cash? That’s right, you go generic store-brand chocolate sandwich cookie instead of name brand Oreos. (Your kids can’t really tell the difference anyway, it’s all just marketing you tell yourself.)

So the bottom dropped out. SAG was left holding on to the middle and upper budget projects, of which the exhibitors were buying less of because of the availability of low budget fare to fill their timelsots. SAG would scramble and introduce the Ultra-Low Budget contract, which was basically them legitimizing low-budget non-union movies and letting the producers pay SAG actors $100 a day.

Really, it was too little, too late; SAG had lost too much market share and what they replaced it with just wasn’t bringing in the cash… But more importantly their voice wasn’t as loud as it used to be, and this is what hurt more than the loss of revenue, it was the loss of power.

Defeated internally but still the big man on campus, SAG strolls back to AFTRA and says “let’s hook up”… And since this is the real world and not Hollywood – I mean it is Hollywood, but real world Hollywood, not Hollywood Hollywood. Look, quit being difficult, you know what I mean… Anyway AFTRA was still more than willing to merge with SAG this time around, creating the one super-union under the new name of SAG-AFTRA.

Inspired naming. Probably should have joined with the Writer’s Guild while you were at it.

(There’s actually a lot more to the Ross & Rachael history of the merger than I’ve laid out here, and a lot more accurate too, dealing with twenty years’ worth of contract disputes and backstabbing between the unions, not to mention AFTRA finally inventing weathergirls. But I didn’t want to bore you anymore than I already have)

So the vote is set for February 27th. There are a few people against the merger, including Scott Wilson, who you probably know as playing farm owner Hershel Greene on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”:

Hershel Greene

This man does not want the unions to merge. He wants you and your people off his farm.

The complaint is all based on the new union voting structure and how it will switch from a direct vote under the SAG system to a delegate system like AFTRA has. There are also concerns about combing the Pension & Health plans of both unions, but blah blah blah this is all largely irrelevant to you because the vote WILL pass and the unions WILL merge.

“But you still haven’t explained why I need to join AFTRA”

You’re right, and I’m sorry. I was just giving you back story, like the crawl at the beginning of Star Wars. It’s freaking important even though YOU think you can do without it.

If you want to join SAG, it will cost you $2277.00 in initiation fees PLUS your annual dues ($116 + ~2% of your SAG earnings), AND you need to qualify. You can’t just stroll in there with a check, you need to be eligible to join SAG. There are a couple of way to do this, like getting hired for a speaking part in a SAG project (which is unlikely if you’re non-union, because they’ll just hire a SAG actor), or working three days as an extra under a UNION EXTRA contract. The latter is not as easy as it sounds. I became eligible to join SAG by doing extra work, and it took me a long ass time to get those three vouchers… And this was back in the day when SAG was still doing TV, and before Peter Jackson killed the crowd scene with CGI. There’s a lot less SAG extra work to go around these days, so it’ll take you ever longer to qualify. Sorry.

Yeah, it’s tough to join SAG, not to mention expensive.

AFTRA however, just requires a check. No qualifications, just cash. $1600, made out to them, and you are in the union today. Boom.

“Great, I’m in AFTRA now, but not SAG. Also $1600 poorer.”

Yeah, but the unions are going to merge in like, 17 days. And when they do, everyone in one union automatically gets into the other union… But when the unions DO merge, it will be a lot harder and a lot more expensive to join if you ain’t in a union already.

That $1600 AFTRA initiation fee? Gone. The proposed new initiation fee for SAG-AFTRA will be $3000, plus your annual dues. That’s a big chunk of change. If you were to get hired for four straight days on CSI: Miami, EVERY DOLLAR YOU EARN WILL GO TOWARDS YOUR INITIATION FEES. Also, the SAG eligibility requirements will still stand (if not get even harder) so you will now need to qualify to join the union… You can’t just show up with a check anymore.

“But what if I get Taft-Hartley’ed?”

Ugh. Again with the Taft-Hartley. Everyone always brings up Taft-Hartley.

(For those that don’t know, The Taft-Hartley act lets you hire a non-union actor for a union job, and grants the full union eligibility for 30 days).

Well, if you get Taft-Hartley’ed, you’d still need to pay that $3000 to join the union after the merge. Also, you won’t get Taft-Hartley’ed. I guarantee you there is an actor who looks just like you and who is just as good an actor as you auditioning for the exact same role, except THEY are already in the union. The production will hire that person and not bother Taft-Hartley-ing you. Or else there is a 19 year old non-union hottie that the producer really wants to bang. You are also not her.

This girl will get Taft-Hartley'ed before you. She will also get everything else in life before you.

Now I’ve met some young actors are eligible to join the union, but who don’t want to join the union just yet. They thing they are doing better staying eligible for non-union gigs at this stage in their career. This is a mistake.

First, non-union jobs pay crap. $50-$100 per day for speaking roles on most jobs IF you’re getting paid at all.

Second, have you seen the quality of most non-union productions? Even great actors look bad when you only shoot two takes before needing to move on. Sure It’s a credit on IMDB and you might be able to get something for your reel out of it, but you probably won’t be bragging to everyone to tune in once you see what the finished product looks like.

Moreover, you probably won’t get hired for a union job unless you’re already an active member. An ACTIVE member, not just one who is eligible to join.

“But it’s just as good to be SAG-E, as it is full SAG, right?”

No, it is not. See, if you’re only SAG eligible, you get to work one job without being required to join the union. So sometime between now and when you land that second job you need to go down to the SAG building, fill out a bunch of paperwork, get your photo taken, and write a check. If your agent calls at 7pm tonight to say you’ve booked a job and your call time is at 8am tomorrow, there is NO WAY for you to join SAG in time. And trust me, the vast majority of jobs you will get shoot tomorrow, and you don’t find out till the evening, after SAG is closed for the day. If you show up on set and you are not a full SAG member yet, the production company gets fined for hiring you. In today’s acting wasteland, name actors work cheap, and they could have got a name actor for the money they paid for you and your fine. You can then count on never working with these people again*

(*hypothetically. Like I said, they won’t risk it and just WON’T hire you in the first place.)

Oh, and if a casting director sees “SAG Eligible” on a resume, this says to me that at most you have been hired once… and only once. All those other credits on your resume? Those could be youtube videos as far as they now, and you should just assume that they will just assume they are.

And look, if you really want to keep doing non-union jobs, then just go Financial Core. You pay your initiation fees and your annual dues, but you aren’t a member of the union and can still work non-union jobs. You get all the same protections, you just don’t get to vote and don’t get free screeners come awards season.

Or you can just work non-union jobs and hope the union doesn’t find out. Which realistically, they probably won’t. The only way they might find out is if someone on set rats you out to the union, and that’s if said person really has it in for you. Yet another reason why you really shouldn’t be a primadonna on set.

Anyway, if you’re eligible to join a union but are holding off, stop and just join the union already. The price is only going to go up and it is keeping you from landing some jobs.

Everyone else? Join AFTRA today. It’s $1600 and there are no eligibility requirements. That all changes when they merge with SAG, then it will be $3000 and you’ll need to satisfy their eligibility requirements. Pay a lot now, or pay a lot more tomorrow.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch my screener copy of The Artist.