dipping a toe into the performers’ unions discussions

I am a non-union voice over talent.

I have never been a member of a performer’s union like the Screen Actor’s Guild (with an estimated 120,000 members) or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (with an estimated 70,000 members).

Both unions are negotiating their new contracts with the studios via the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Normally, the two unions negotiate together. This time they are not. They are at war and they will both lose. AFTRA is voting on their contract with the producers and SAG is angry about it (there’s a lot more to it and you can read more details, starting here.)

I feel so badly for all the performers affected by this as they are simply trying to work within the system that’s been established. It has to be terribly frustrating. Adding my voice to the discussion won’t mean much but its been weighing on my mind for so long because of various discussion I have has with my fellow voice talents that I finally figured I should get it off my chest so that it can be summarily ignored.

As a potential member, I am not against these unions but rather their features and benefits have never outweighed the features and benefits of being non-union. It’s a personal choice for every performer. It does not mean I wouldn’t consider union membership at another point in my career…if it were worth it.

As I have stated before, if I lived in New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, I would likely have joined a union there, as most of the work up until recently has been primarily union. (Yes, the italics indicate where we should insert the dramatic music of a soap opera organ.)

The foundation for these two unions (the primary unions for television, radio, movie and yes, voice over performers) was as necessary for the entertainment industry as it was for most other unions in other industries…management abused and neglected workers and wasn’t going to stop doing that unless they were forced to stop.

The creation of unions within many industries developed that force. Wages became equitable, working conditions improved, health benefits were established to name just a few of the benefits unions provided. Further, union membership was also meant to imply that the quality of worker was better (sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t). But as some unions gained prestige, they seemed to have become somewhat drunk with the abusive power that necessitated their inception. Power was abused, laws were broken and some union necessitated costs sky rocketed.

The fiscal reality that surrounds any business is that two entities that are bashing their brains out trying to go after the same customers, spending good money after bad to do so, might be better served by merging. Airlines do it; banks do it…all business does it. If it doesn’t cannibalize the market, merge – the businesses will be more successful.

AFTRA and SAG have been discussing merging for a while now and recently decided not to merge. 44,000 AFTRA members are paying two union dues by also being members of SAG…that a lot of crossover and in my opinion wasted money.

I don’t know the specific reasons each party had for walking away from the deal but in such matters I have sixth sense that, if it kicks in hard enough, always assures me I’m right. I call this sense the “Logic Sense”. It’s when an answer appears so blatantly obvious to everyone that it’s clearly the course to follow. Having over 50% of AFTRA members also paying dues to SAG (securing union services that overlap significantly) simply because there are two union contracts in place is to me crazy. One union would have been the smarter way to go.

But I also get the sense (maybe it’s my “seventh” sense) that ego, selfishness and pride (an ailment affecting all of us that may be slightly magnified in Hollywood and New York) is what was at the heart of the merger breakdown. But I wasn’t there so I don’t know for sure.

I’m not much of a protester. Carrying placards and signs at a rally or in front of a building is not my style.

One, I would find it embarrassing and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Two, I think a picket’s effectiveness to embarrass the people you have to negotiate with is really minor. After a few days and barring violence (never a good idea) the protest becomes blasé.

Three, I think the public ultimately sees it today as a nuisance; people don’t want the interruption in their lives (“You’re protesting to help provide for your family is getting in the way of me providing for my family and if I have to pick between the two, I pick my family over yours!”). There’s less “us against them” thinking (like in the unions early days) and more “me, me, me!’ thinking today. Yes that may seem selfish but I think it’s where we are today, like it or not, and again this is my opinion based on what I have observed and heard. And because it devalues a good part of what a union does (certainly visually) I think it puts the very foundation of all unions at terrible risk.

So while protesting and picketing has served the unions well in the past, watching the SAG members protest yesterday and reading about it just gave me the feeling that this whole negotiation isn’t going to end well for the members or for the union’s perception among the public.

Here was yesterday’s protest challenge as I understand it: SAG has to sway the opinions of 44,000 overlapping AFTRA members not to ratify the new AFTRA deal and then SAG has to go negotiate a new deal with producers. Yikes. Negotiating a new deal is tough enough but trying to get people to vote against a deal that would let them get back to their business and their lives for a few years too?! A two fold problem rather than being able to focus time, talent and treasure on one problem puts SAG in a position of weakness at the negotiating table. Maybe they can win both…good for them.

So if you’re the Vice President for New Union Member Recruitment for either SAG or AFTRA, (if there even is such a job), do you like your job right now?

Sure, studio contracts say performers have to be in a union to work so you’ve got a good chance of getting a certain amount of new recruits every year….if you are in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

But there a lot of performance work that goes on outside those markets and the union’s regional recruiters I’m guessing are having a tougher time selling the value of union membership while watching all these goings on in L.A.

Then, in addition to the strike malaise a recruiter has to deal with, consider:

• The growing fondness producers have for working with non-union performers (especially in commercial work and voice over)
• The growth of non-union performers
• The dirty little secret of union performers working non-union jobs under pseudonyms or entirely un-credited.

I could mention financial core union membership as a tool to recruit new members, but from what I have been told, Fi-Core members are not looked fondly upon by the unions or its full boat members. Fi-Core may be legal but you’ll likely be as welcomed as the First Kazooist at the Philharmonic.

While I am sadly watching the performance unions self-destruct (in my opinion) I am not an advocate for non-union work either. Especially in voice over, the market is inundated with unprofessional, talentless voices that are bringing down the quality of work and the fees that are paid…it’s hurting the industry. Management who hire these less than stellar talents aren’t so worried about their sound as their wallets.

Sort of sounds like a place where a union might come in handy, doesn’t it?

There have been many non-union voice talents like me who have charged a fair wage that was either at slightly less than union scale. We also work primarily via full buyout rather than the residuals system that union performers enjoy. Many clients in the American market also cannot or will not support union fees for work in their projects. These are the prime value factors of working with a non-union talent. For the talent, in summation, we are not subjected to the various requirements and rules that restrain union talent from taking work nor do we have to share our revenues with the unions in the form of dues or fees. So non-union work is a quality option, as it should be.

But non-union work has its challenges too.

Technology, which has been a prime negotiating topic for many performing unions, has also become a problem for non-union talent as well. With technology so abundant, there are people now calling themselves professional performers and charging vulgarly low fees which adversely affect the perceived value of the voice over market. It’s becoming a garage sale at times (especially on some pay-for-play sites), which is bad.

If someone could show me a unified performance union, that controlled one contract with studios, agencies etc., kept all fees reasonable (for members and clients) and operated with as little politics as possible (certainly no political leanings or strong arming) I would be very willing to discuss membership. I think it could happen and I think the benefits for everyone would be significant.

But I don’t think it will happen and I think performance unions as we know them today will be significantly different, smaller and less effective than they ever have been or certainly were originally meant to be. And that’s probably not good for any of us.

4 Responses to “dipping a toe into the performers’ unions discussions”

  1. This is a controversial and complicated topic. You did an excellent job stating your position.

    Going FC in AFTRA was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but there is relatively NO AFTRA work in San Diego right now – or for several years. We still have some SAG work due to a movie/film studio here in town. The last AFTRA job I did was through an Atlanta agent for a client in Indiana. Because union work is W-2 work, even though I own my own studio and work on my own as an independent contractor, this was “employee” work and I had to pay my tax guy more to file taxes in Indiana – which was as much as the tax I owed as I recall.

    I joined AFTRA because in 1978 Channel 8 – KFMB-TV was a union station. And for several years I was able to work AFTRA jobs without even thinking about taking a non-union job. I was a former AFTRA president in the local and went to the national conventions, as well as sat in on negotiations. But times changed.

    The biggest argument I hear when people talk about Fi-Core is that if every body did it, there wouldn’t be a union. Well, I don’t think that is true – I pay nearly as much dues/fees a member would pay. So, we still pay a bunch of money to the union. The union would/should/could evolve into something more relevant.

    I guess my biggest beef at the moment is the concept of talent bidding against each other for a job. Why this bothers me is that in more and more cases, I am the one doing the negotiations now – instead of my agent. Well, again with changing times I have more than one agent.

    I often feel like saying “Name that tune” to potential clients on the “pay to play” sites who are looking for the lowest bid. In effect I do, because I just don’t respond. You want that talent for $50 – then go for it. I can’t – won’t – SHOULDN’T work for that rate.

    Not every potential new client does this – some state their budget. And thank you for that.

  2. Hi Connie:

    It’s great to hear from you on this topic for many reasons- love having you on the blog; first off but for this topic more importantly you offer a (one time) union leadership perspective. Very valuable.

    When you used the word relevant when discussing the performance unions’ evolution I thought that to be a perfect choice of words.

    The need and value of performance unions are not and likely never have been irrelevant. At their inception, the need for such an organization was great (from what I have learned were quite questionable working conditions and employment treatment by studios).

    But they have not evolved into a modern, august body in today’s business world whose opinions and procedures are universally respected by members and companies alike.

    The evolution of unions don’t mean that they need to be less impactful but their operations and practices cannot remain as they were and sadly, as they are today.

    I would have thought that they drop off in membership that I am hearing about would get their attention. Maybe it has but maybe too even they don’t have a solution for their evolution.

    Best always,
    – Peter

  3. Hi Peter,

    Thank you for sharing your very well presented (and informed) opinion. This is certainly an interesting period of time in the history of both SAG and AFTRA.

    It’s hard to believe that 44,000 people are in this predicament and need to make tough decisions that will negatively affect their relationships with one or the other. I hope that a just outcome results from this.

    I also want to thank you for adding your voice to this conversation as a potential member. As you said, if there were a union whose benefits outweighed the current benefits of your being non-union, it would warrant more discussion and serious consideration.

    Well done, Peter.

    Best wishes,


  4. Hi Steph:

    Thanks so much for your kind words.

    So much has changed even today in the evolution of this debate. I’ve spoken with two SAG members with differing views on the situation which to me simply highlights the chaos that this has all caused.

    I imaging its even worse for people on the front lines.

    As they say…to be continued!

    Best always,
    – Peter