Talent Unions: an Overview
Much of the performance in high-end entertainment and other media is done by members of the actors' unions. In theater, there is the Actor's Equity Association (AEA). However, this page deals only with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
What's the point of these unions, anyway? Now that they are online, you can ask them directly. I have my own views on their interaction with the industry. Traditionally, AFTRA has dealt with any sort of electronic medium, including broadcasting; SAG is theoretically just for film, but in fact covers many other things -- including much of the television industry. With so much overlap in their "jurisdictions," there was a major effort to merge these two unions.
When this website first went online in 1996 -- and the first version of this article appeared -- merger looked quite possible, even likely. But when it finally came up for a vote by the members of both unions, it failed, mostly due to opposition within SAG. There would have been legitimate difficulties, like trying to merge the pension and benefit plans of the two organizations. But those problems were not what killed the merger.
I won't go into any dirt here -- the whole sordid saga has been written about in trade journals and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the industries continue to evolve, media conglomerates get bigger and bigger, and the rationale for a larger, unified and more powerful union for performers is an idea with life still left in it. Don't be surprised if it surfaces again.
New media: AFTRA and SAG have both made some efforts to work with producers in things like CD-ROM, etc. This article gives a brief look at AFTRA's first contracts in this area, along with some food for thought.
Traditional Media: If you need to hire union talent for any broadcast purpose, you'll need to become a signatory to the appropriate contract. But for most non-broadcast applications you can work through a paymaster. In layperson's terms, a paymaster is like a union-specific temp agency; it serves as the signatory for the job, handles payroll, taxes, and benefits -- and charges a fee, of course! Despite the higher cost, many non-broadcast producers like the convenience of paymasters, and do most or all of their talent hiring through them. As a result, some non-broadcast producers might never see a union contract.
However, the contract has several features that producers need to know about -- including things that can save them money! So, I prepared some plain-language Producer's Talent Guidelines with a corresponding Producer's Talent Checklist. These will introduce you to some of the main areas you should know about for non-broadcast production.
As handy-dandy as these things might be, I am obligated to reiterate that none of the union information on this website is official. For official information you should contact the unions directly. Now that they're finally online, you can refer to the national unions' websites for further information if you wish. I've also provided a list of national and local AFTRA/SAG phone numbers right here for your convenience.