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Is There a Union for Actors?

The Screen Actors Guild negotiates things like working hours and salaries for both film and television actors.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 August 2014
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Like the rest of us, actors need access to medical benefits, retirement plans, and other employee programs. To respond to this need, two unions in the US exist for actors. These are the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG), and the Actor’s Equity Association (AEA). In England the British Actor’s Association offers union memberships to actors in both live and filmed productions. While many well-known actors can write their own ticket for pay and benefits, most actors may scrape a living in commercial work or in brief appearances in plays. These unions help protect unrecognized workers by providing them with the same benefits most employers would provide.

Television and film actors tend to belong to SAG. If they have made the shift from plays to films, they may have initially belonged to the AEA. One of the primary features of both organizations is that they set minimum compensation limits for work. As well, SAG also sets minimum compensation for work that is rerun, called royalties. So if an actor works on a commercial, for instance, he or she will get a small payment each time the commercial airs. Those who make an appearance on a sitcom will get a payment each time the sitcom shows up on television.

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Additionally, both SAG and the AEA provide 401k programs, and health insurance at a relatively low cost. Qualification for health benefits is usually based on having worked a certain number of days or hours in a calendar year. Actors who do not work the required amount may have to buy their own health insurance.

Failure to abide by the terms set by SAG can make it hard for companies. Most unions honor each other, and since there are also unions of screenwriters, producers and directors, as well as behind the scenes workers, a non-union employee may mean that one can obtain no union employees in the future. In fact, both SAG and AEA request that their members not work in productions that are non-union. There are some exceptions. Most recognize the importance of independent films, which are frequently produced with very little money. If an actor works on an independent film and is not paid, SAG usually will not complain.

Actors cannot simply join a union because they want to. Both SAG and the AEA require that one either be in a SAG or AEA production to join. Membership may be provisional and expire once production is over. After a length of time working on union productions, one may be able to have a full-time membership. SAG and AEA like almost all unions require membership and application fees, as well as yearly dues. Maintaining membership by working a certain number of days per year may also be required.

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hyrax53
Post 3

@anon15771- From what I know through reading acting blogs and studying theatre, your best bet is probably asking whoever got you that acting job, be they a rep of a company or an agent. He or she can contact the company the ad was for and find out if they're doing something that goes against your contract, which I assume you had.

anon15771
Post 1

Hi, I was featured in a TV ad which I filmed in South Africa where I live. I have a suspicion it is flighting in other parts of the world, for which I am not getting paid royalties. How do I find out whether I am getting ripped off? Someone told me there was a website which listed all the ads getting shown around the world but I can't find it. Would appreciate some advice. Thanks, G

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