One of the questions I'm asked most often is "How you get into the union?"
Joining SAG-AFTRA is an important step, if you're going to become a professional actor, but it's not easy. There are two primary ways most people use to become eligible to join. The first one (and this used to be the only way to join) is to "get a line." Here's how that works. Let's say that you're working as a non-union extra on a SAG-AFTRA film. You're sitting at a table in a restaurant scene with a bunch of other non-union background players, the director says to you, "In a moment this wickedly handsome and disarmingly gracious older Irish looking gentleman it's going to walk through the door. When he does I want you to lean over and say to the person next to you, "Oh ,look! There's Charlie!" You've been asked to ad-lib an unscripted line. If they roll the camera on that and shoot it even once, you are entitled to be upgraded to a principal performer, whether they use the line in the picture or not. Generally speaking, they don't like to do that, because if they do they have to Taft-Hartley you, (we'll talk about that another time) and instead of getting paid minimum wage as a non-union extra, you will now be entitled to SAG-AFTRA principal player wages, plus 15% that goes into your pension and welfare fund, plus residuals when the pictures goes to TV, DVD, Cable, Foreign Markets, Internet, etc.
Another way to become eligible is the "three voucher" rule. I personally have never like that system, as it has flooded the ranks of the union with untrained and untalented people. One of the resolutions at the SAG-AFTRA National Convention, to which I was a delegate, was to replace that with a new system of entry. Here's how that currently works. Although it is not a studio zone, Sacramento is a SAG-AFTRA extra zone, That means if a feature film is being shot in Sacramento the first 57 background must be union, or in the case of a TV show , the first 21 extras must be union. (There are different numbers for the SAG-AFTRA low budget agreements.) But let's say we need 57 union extras who can ride a horse. In Sacramento we just don't have that many SAG-AFTRA members to fill that requirement. Let's say we do have 40; we're 17 short. That means we can take 17 non-union extras and let them work that day as a union extra. They get union wages and working conditions and they get a voucher. Once someone gets 3 of those union vouchers, he or she becomes SAG-AFTRA eligible. That means they can join whenever they want to, as soon as they pay the initiation fee and first 6 months dues. The initiation fee is currently $3000, and the dues are about $200 per year. The SAG-AFTRA Credit Union offers payment terms to those who qualify.
Now the question is, do you want to join? It's a two-edged sword. As a union member the minimum wage under the basic agreement is $ 809 per day, as of July 1, 2013. Plus overtime, meal penalties, wardrobe fees, and some additional "perks", depending on what the actor is required to do. Only you can say when it's time for you to join, because the other side of the coin is . . . . once you become a member, YOU CANNOT DO ANY NON-UNION WORK. If you do, you are subject to being fined and suspended from the union. Sadly, there are some unscrupulous actors who are working "off the card" on shows like "I Almost Got Away With It" and some others. Be aware, eventually it will catch up with them, and they will pay the consequences. Besides, as long as they are willing to ignore their union agreements, those shows have no incentive to become signatories to the union contracts. I turn down jobs almost every day, because I honor my SAG-AFTRA obligations.
I know this all seems pretty complicated and it is. Let me know if you have any questions or better yet, I cover this in most of my classes, so enroll!