To Join or Not to Join?! SAG – AFTRA – AEA – advice from fellow NYCastings actors

What a HUGE dilemma…

Do you join a union as soon as possible or when you have to?

Joining a union has many upsides – higher paying gigs, union protection and that much needed health insurance! Yet, joining also means turning down those smaller jobs that build both your resume and your bank account.

To help with this big decision, NYCastings asked some of our own top bookers to share their opinions.

But first – Let’s meet our fellow actors who worked a ton last year, thanks to NYCastings…

Seregon O’Dassey – AFTRA, Sag Eligible.

Seregon booked a ton of work through NYCastings in 2010, including commercials, web spots, print ads, industrials, live events, Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” TV show, Damages, As the World Turns, Celebrity Ghost stories, White Collar and a Ricky Rude video-music video.

Eric Rizk – AFTRA

Eric landed roles on Blue Bloods, Spike TV, A Legal Mind, Benjamin – Dream of Mirrors, The Good Wife, Rescue Me and a pedestrian in a Tribeca Print Project.

Lauren SusanNon Union

In 2010, Lauren started working with Chic Models, booked a Germany’s Next Top Model Commercial, worked on Spike TV Weekend Pre-Game, Love In Zodiac, Law and Order CI, StarGazer a NYFA thesis project, The Nate Burkus Show (a Mad Men makeover fashion segment) and a Target pop up store event.

Do you find that more jobs are available for union or non-union?

SEREGON: It depends on the union. There are a myriad of AFTRA jobs but I see only background for SAG. As far as feature films go, I think a lot of them are going non union now because it’s less expensive.

ERIC: I think there are more jobs posted for Non-union. Agents tend to have access to the Union work.

LAUREN: I find that non union & union jobs are neck & neck for background work & U5 roles. Most film castings I see are usually indies & are non union. I feel agents have access to the most of the union work, because it is a higher value of work & usually needs grade A actors. I do however think that big productions are willing to audition unknown talent, but only through an agency.

Why did you join the union(s)? Or if you are not union – Why haven’t you joined the unions yet?

SEREGON: I joined AFTRA because I booked three daytime TV gigs within a few months of each other. I am SAG eligible, but I haven’t joined yet because I feel the fee is high, and I’m booked on three non union films so far this year. Since they’re all paying jobs I don’t want to lose them.

ERIC: I joined the union, when I was cast to work 3 days in a row on White Collar. I was Non-union at the time, and they were going to waiver me as AFTRA for the 3 days. You make significantly more money doing Union work, even if it is background. I believe if you are going to have a shot at making a living as an actor the main things that make that possible are getting residuals from commercial, film, or television projects. Most Non-Union work there is a one time buy out. I joined because I am interested in making a living as an actor. I am pursuing some voiceover and audiobook opportunities which fall under AFTRA contracts. In the meantime I do AFTRA background work to make some extra money. I am AFTRA, but Non-SAG. I have 2 SAG waivers however.

LAUREN: I am an AFTRA must join. I want to join but it is very expensive. AFTRA wants the money up front and I can’t afford it at this time. I know a lot of people in the same situation & it’s rough because since I am a “must join” I can’t submit to certain castings. I do hope to be a member by the end of this year.

What do you think are the benefits of joining / waiting?

SEREGON: I don’t think someone should join a union because they “can.” I think they should wait until they absolutely have to. Build up your resume, get your name out there, then join when you have a great gig that requires you to make that leap, because once you do you can’t go back. I see too many actors join Sag and then they complain because there isn’t any work.

ERIC: I think you should wait to join. Training is very important. The money you spend on union dues could better be spent that way. Also you want to do some bigger Non-union projects to put on your reel. I think if you have no training and run out and join both you will mainly get caught up into doing only Union background work. I think once you have established some work and training you should then consider joining. Think of it as the next step, and investing in your future.

LAUREN: I feel the benefits of joining the union is more pay(obviously) and more job opportunities. Most jobs have gone AFTRA and if you’re a must join, like myself, you really can’t work on anything until you join. I also feel when you list a union on your resume it does make you look a tad bit more professional. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are many non union talented people out there, but let’s face it – an agent prefers union talent & union jobs are usually better gigs.

Do you feel that you have missed out on jobs due to your current union status?

SEREGON: No, I don’t. In fact I’ve gotten jobs because I was only eligible. If I would’ve been union, I would have lost all three films I signed on to do.

ERIC: Sure I have missed out on some work due to union status. I miss out on some Non-union work, but nothing too major.

LAUREN: I don’t know if I have missed out on gigs because of my union status. I do not submit to a lot of AFTRA work just because I know if I get booked I have to join AFTRA that very day. I am not in a position to do that right now, so I don’t submit. With that being said, I guess I feel kind of limited with television work.

Do you think that you can earn back the costs of union dues?

SEREGON: Yes, if you submit constantly and hone in on your skill, study and take classes to improve and get yourself booked you can make quite a bit of money, but you have to be proactive. You can’t just join the union and then sit back and wait for the phone to ring. I think AFTRA is cost effective, but I don’t believe SAG is. They keep raising their fees and then wonder why actors are not joining. Who can afford to shell out $3000 in this economy?! If SAG allowed a payment plan the way AFTRA does, I think there would be more actors willing to pay to join.

ERIC: Yes you can earn the union due back fairly easily. Even if all you do is Union background work, you can earn it back pretty quickly. You just have to be reliable, have a good look, and a flexible schedule.

LAUREN: I do feel if I joined AFTRA I could earn my costs back. AFTRA has taken over many television shows this past year and more members are working. AFTRA is only about $1800 to join, which is not a lot of money. However, it is a lot to shell out of your pocket all at once. I do think by joining it is cost effective and a person can earn it back. Not to mention if you’re a member some acting schools, photographers and stores do give union members discounts for being a member. I feel there is a lot to gain.


SEREGON: I do believe unions can be useful in protecting actors and “sticking up for the little guy.” For example, even though I am only SAG eligible, I recently called them to report a casting that required actresses to have REAL SEX during the scene. They shut down the project. I’m very grateful to have them looking out for us.

ERIC: Unions definitely help actors. There are resources available for health care, schooling, and training that are available through Unions. Also if you earn enough you can qualify for medical benefits and even retirement. Plus Union work is usually the only work where an actor gets paid residual income for what they do. Most Non-union work there is only a one time buy out.

You may also like