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Unions: Should You Join? Consider
How It Will Affect You And Income
By Bobbin Beam
Voice Actor
I‘ve been a member of AFTRA (American Federation of Television & Radio Artists) and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) since the mid-1980s. As a matter of fact, I was very involved.
I had grown my career to a point where I was making a good living doing union work in San Diego and Los Angeles, and there was plenty of it. I was local AFTRA president until 1990, at which time I went on honorable withdrawal from both unions to become the San Diego Local’s hired Executive Director - a post I held for nearly five years.
During that period, I learned and lived a lifetime of union experience. And this is why VoiceOverXtra asked me to write an overview article about unions, and to explain what voice actors should consider about joining them.
Whether or not to join a union is entirely an individual’s choice. There is no absolute right or wrong - just opinions, and strong ones, on either side of the case.
Like arguing over religion or politics, no one will win that fight.
Union membership has many benefits - including higher pay, residuals and health insurance. There may also be a Union Security Clause in a contract that you are working under - for instance, at a broadcast network or in a major feature film – that will push your decision along.
But union membership bars you from performing non-union work, which affects your income and ability to qualify for many union benefits in the first place. 
And all those neat benefits don’t fall from the sky. Unions fight for them. So the current writers’ union strike reminds you to also determine if you are willing to:
  • stand up for your union status, and not cross a picket line. Many actors in Hollywood and New York are unable to work now during the writers’ strike. There are no new scripts or programs for them to act in. And,
  • face the possibility of an actors’ union strike action.
Here’s how to weigh all the pros and cons of union membership.
The basic reasons for actors’ unions to be formed in the first place were to:
  • provide benefits and protections that as individual performers we could not readily create or sustain on our own: health insurance, pensions, minimum wages and working conditions, and the like; and
  • serve as a counter-weight to the tremendous power of employers in setting rates and working conditions, especially in this era of media-consolidation.
There are certainly many favorable reasons to become a member of an actors’ union, including getting: 
  • higher pay and on-time payment
  • residuals
  • health insurance
  • pension/retirement plan, and 
  • fair wages and working conditions
Yet there are also reasons to refrain from joining a union:
  • Don’t join if acting (or voice-over) is a hobby and not a full-time profession.
  • Unless you reside or work in the major metro markets (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), freelance union jobs are hard to find. Once you join, you can only accept employment offered by clients who are union signatories (except in right-to-work states).
  • If there are no union signatories in your area, there will be no union work.
  • If there is little or no union work, you’ll have little or no income, and you won’t meet the minimum earnings threshold set by union trustees to get the free health insurance benefit – or to become vested in the retirement plan.
  • You might not qualify for SAG’s eligibility rules.
  • Do you have the initiation fee and annual dues? Union dues are paid twice per year, whether or not you have earnings.
  • Unless you hold a full-time position at a broadcast station under AFTRA contract, you’ll most probably not qualify for health and retirement benefits.
  • The number of stations and union signatories has declined over the past 20 years, and a lot of union work has disappeared.
There are paid staffs in all unions. The governing bodies are entirely made up of unpaid members volunteering their time.
But in general, unions are political by nature, both inside and outside their basic structures.
A union truly is the membership, so if enough members feel that the union is going astray or not addressing their concerns, they can vote the Council or Board Members out and replace them with those who represent their views more adequately. 
When I decided to leave my paid union staff position years ago to set up a sign design and digital graphics company with my spouse, I reactivated union membership and returned to freelance talent work, part time.
We eventually sold our successful business, and by mid 2005 I was back to being a full-time voice actress, and rebuilding my “new voice-over business” - essentially, from scratch.
I found that the industry had vastly changed from when I had been making a full-time living at it only 17 years before. And it continues to evolve.
Bobbin Beam is a very active voice talent, specializing in projects for broadcast and business. She also writes an informative industry blog (see below).
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