When embarking on a new video project, there are huge decisions to be made. One of the biggest choices you’ll have to make is — should you go union? This option is an important one. In fact, the decision to work with SAG-AFTRA or other unions will directly impact your talent pool, budget, daily schedule, overall timeline and many other factors.
What is a union?
Let’s explore the background of unions. Simply put, unions represent the interests of a group of workers in a particular industry. Unions help these workers unite in order to more competently negotiate with employers. These negotiations concern things like benefits, wages, hours, working conditions and other facets of their jobs. Ultimately, unions help create industry best practices. They set guidelines and help draft and enforce employment contracts. They also advocate for the workers they support, both in direct employer disputes and more broadly in the political arena.
In the media world, the main union representing on-screen talent is the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). SAG was originally formed in 1933 in an effort to eliminate the exploitation of actors. Back then, Hollywood studios forced actors to sign onerous contracts. They endured extremely long hours. Plus, they had very little say over their professional and personal, lives. Since its formation, SAG has represented more than 100,000 film and television performers around the world. In 2012, SAG merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) to create SAG-AFTRA.
Other than SAG-AFTRA, there are some other unions to be aware of, depending on your project. Others include the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA). There’s also the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and Teamsters, a broader labor union that has a Motion Picture and Theatrical Trade Division, and even more.
So, what’s the difference between working with a union and non-union cast and crew? And which one should you go with?
We asked Wendy LaManque, a prominent New York City-based labor attorney, for her thoughts. LaManque has served as outside counsel for a number of entertainment unions and is currently legal counsel at AGMA.
The advantages of working with a union cast or crew
Union casts and crews tend to be more professional. This applies both behind the camera and in front of it. SAG actors and other union members typically have more years of experience under their belt and are career actors or crew members. “Some people think of unions as difficult to work with,” LaManque told us. “The structure put in place by the collective bargaining agreement between the producers and the union allows the cast and crew to perform their work with a higher level of quality and professionalism.”
SAG actors and other union members typically have more years of experience under their belt and are career actors or crew members.
The advantages, though, aren’t limited to the cast and crew being more professional. Union productions also require that same level of professionalism from the producers, directors and everyone else involved in the project. “The rules pertaining to a union production require everyone to be more deliberate with their time and money,” LaManque continued. “You know when your cast and crew will have their breaks, how long your days are going to be, how much everyone is going to get paid, and when overtime kicks in. All of this forces those managing the production to keep their cast and crew in mind when planning their budgets and schedules and encourages everybody to stay on-task. It can benefit everyone involved.”
Safeguarding your cast and crew
A major advantage of working with a union cast and crew is clear expectations. Unions have created a set of important workplace expectations over and above payment terms and lunch breaks, specifically related to discrimination and harassment. This is particularly important given the recent exposure of long-standing discrimination and sexual harassment in the film and television industry.
LaManque stressed this. “Small, non-union productions usually don’t have an ‘HR’ department or some other way to resolve workplace conflicts that may arise. In a union setting, there are mechanisms in place to protect individuals against harassment and discrimination. [This] provides them with someone to go to who will listen and advocate for them in case something does happen on set.”
So the unions have many benefit like professionalism, structure, and set expectations. Additionally, workplace safety and security are among the perks of working with a union cast and crew.
What are some of the challenges?
The challenges of working with SAG-AFTRA and other unions
All of the benefits named above ultimately come at a cost. It’s no secret that hiring a union cast and crew typically costs more than hiring non-union. Union workers have non-negotiable minimum rates set by their collective bargaining agreements. These can limit the flexibility of a film or project, particularly where the budget is small. LaManque explained, “salary minimums are one of the most basic protections a union contract provides its members. Entertainment unions were formed to protect artists and ensure they are fairly compensated.”
LaManque went on. “In addition to the minimum standards and rates set by the basic collective bargaining agreement, many entertainment professionals also have a personal service contract, which goes above and beyond the minimum, particularly for big-name actors. An A-list celebrity may negotiate for additional contractual benefits like a higher salary, separate dressing areas, and agreements on press appearances. Personal service contracts are not unique to unionized settings, but an artist is better positioned to negotiate for more money and greater benefits in their personal agreements when the collective bargaining agreement has already established a ‘floor’ for wages and other terms and conditions of employment.”
Unions also bargain for health and retirement contributions, which can be costly.
Another challenge presented is with project length and scheduling. If you want union workers, you have to keep in mind limitations on the length of the workday. There’s no asking your union cast or crew to stay late and finish a scene. You can’t ask them to come back on set after hours without paying a premium or getting a waiver from the union.
“Union contracts are between the union and the production company, so an individual artist can’t waive a union requirement such as breaks or overtime even if they wanted to. If the production company wants to waive a certain union rule, they need to contact the union directly. This structure ensures consistent application of the rules and prevents those managing the production from putting undue pressure on the cast and crew to continue working beyond their level of comfort or ability,” LaManque told us.
Best practices if you can’t hire a union cast or crew
So, you’ve weighed the benefits against the challenges. What if you simply cannot afford to go with a SAG cast? Does that mean your project, and your cast and crew, are going to suffer? Not necessarily.
For starters, while there is certainly a correlation between union membership and quality, there are incredibly talented non-union actors and brilliant non-union crew that can take part in your video production. So going non-union doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your vision.
More importantly, from a legal standpoint, you can still follow union protocols and best practices with non-union workers for the benefit of everyone involved in your production.
Applying union protocol
“Familiarize yourself with union contracts,” noted LaManque, “and adopt, to whatever extent possible, those industry standards. There are a number of union rules you can follow that won’t cost you money, like establishing safety guidelines on set (beyond what is required by OSHA), setting clear ground rules for intimate scenes, providing for separate changing rooms, and so on. If you want to run your production as professionally as possible and you want to have the structure a union provides, but you simply can’t afford to pay union minimums, you can still adopt union rules to try and emulate the unionized environment. It requires more work and planning, but it will show your cast and crew that you know what you’re doing, that you care about their safety, and that you’re trying to create art in the most professional possible setting.”
LaManque stressed that for any production, it is critical to let the cast and crew know some things from the outset. For one, communicate that you don’t tolerate harassment and discrimination on set. “Several states now require employers to have anti-harassment policies and reporting structures in place, and employers in the entertainment industry should ensure compliance with those laws. Even where it’s not required by law, it’s best to designate someone to receive confidential reports of perceived harassment or discrimination — someone the cast and crew are comfortable with. This helps ensure everyone feels safe and will lead people to trust you and want to work with you in the future. That’s how you build your reputation, and even more importantly, change the culture.”
If you want to hire union workers from SAG-AFTRA or other unions, you will need to follow their established procedures. Luckily, the SAG-AFTRA website has a great deal of information, all the necessary documents, and step-by-step instructions. They also encourage reaching out to them with questions or for help. Most unions will help you ensure you’re doing things the right way.
“At the end of the day, unions are there to protect their members,” remarked LaManque, as she reflected on the fact that not everyone can afford to go the union route. “To the extent that there are protections in place in the absence of a union, a producer or director can establish a level of trust with their cast and crew that will go a long way toward creating a professional and safe environment. If a producer can address at the outset some of the issues that create the most uncertainty for workers — payment, breaks, basic conditions of employment, and personal safety — the cast and the crew can focus on doing what they do best: creating art.”
Working with a union has both advantages and disadvantages. Looking past the contracts and other legal considerations reveals the real answer. Unions exist to protect actors, crew members and media professionals. If you’re embarking on a new project, make sure to follow the same path. Look out for your cast and crew, whether they’re part of a union or not. Because when you do, they’ll look out for you too, and that’s where the magic happens.
More about Wendy LaManque
Wendy LaManque is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations and Brooklyn Law School. Wendy worked at AFTRA (pre-merger with SAG) and Actors Equity Association. She also practiced in a private law firm for six years before becoming Eastern Counsel for the American Guild of Musical Artists. Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice, and employers with questions regarding their legal obligations should contact an attorney.