Any actor who dreams of working on a major Hollywood production will inevitably consider joining SAG-AFTRA, the labor union that represents “the faces and voices that entertain and inform America and the world,” according to their official website.
SAG-AFTRA, the result of the 2012 merger of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, represents roughly 160,000 actors, journalists, recording artists, stunt persons, and radio personalities, to name a few. For beginning actors, it can be hard to know how to approach such an institution.
Why join to begin with? To find out what SAG-AFTRA has to offer, I spoke with SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris, who is best known for her role as Andrea Zuckerman on “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
“It’s not a golden key, but it does promise a richer future,” said Carteris. “The benefits are tremendous.”
(Full disclosure: I worked for the Executive Director of Industry Relations at SAG-AFTRA for two years, occasionally working with Carteris.)
Membership to the union ensures that a performer will receive certain pre-negotiated wages, working conditions, and health and pension benefits for their work, but it also limits the types of productions a performer can work on.
“Be sure that your aspiration is to be a career professional actor because once you join, you will work only union jobs,” said Carteris.
Even the main process of becoming eligible for membership requires non-union performers to be cast in union-covered projects, or “Taft-Hartleyed”, shorthand for the producer filing a Taft-Hartley agreement on the performer’s behalf. These agreements are used when the producer finds it necessary to hire a non-union member for a covered role.
With the proliferation of user-generated online video, it is also possible to act as your own producer and “Taft Hartley” yourself, although you’re required to sign your web content to a SAG-AFTRA new media contract first.
Other paths to eligibility include earning three credits as a background actor, or having at least one year of membership in an affiliated union–ACTRA, AEA, AGMA, or AGVA.
For many actors, SAG-AFTRA membership simply provides regular access to higher quality jobs.
“SAG-AFTRA is the pathway to a professional, long-term career,” said Carteris. “The union provides wages and benefits that non-union jobs don’t.”
Additionally, the union organizes screenings, networking events, and seminars exclusively for its members.
“SAG-AFTRA provides a steady course of educational programs, panels, resources and other tools to keep your skills sharp and help you land that next job,” said Carteris.
Though SAG-AFTRA evidently helps actors in many ways, one thing it does not do is find jobs for them.
“One of the misconceptions about SAG-AFTRA is that it is similar to an employment agency,” said Carteris. “Many people believe the union directly provides jobs.”
Rather, its role is to facilitate a system of consistent high-quality employment opportunities for performers across the entertainment business.
“I think it’s important to stay true to yourself and your work ethic and surround yourself with other professional performers,” Carteris said. “SAG-AFTRA is a community of performers and broadcasters who have a strong advocate in their corner throughout the entertainment and media industry.”