In the 1930s, actors and other people in the entertainment industry asserted their rights against film studios by forming unions. Many of these unions still form cornerstones of the industry, pursuing fair and equal treatment for their members. In addition to negotiating compensation, unions provide non-monetary benefits and assistance, including mentoring and networking opportunities. When a contract involving a member is violated, the union can intervene to enforce it on their behalf.
Above-the-Line and Below-the-Line Unions
Some unions are above-the-line unions, which means that they represent creative individuals, such as actors and directors. Other unions are below-the-line unions, which means that they represent people involved in the production process of a film, such as editing.
The terms "union" and "guild" are often used interchangeably in the entertainment industry. While unions are designed for employees, guilds are designed for independent contractors. Since most union members are technically independent contractors, unions in the entertainment industry are technically guilds. However, there is no functional distinction between these terms.
Eligibility for Union Membership
Requirements for joining a union vary, but generally a prospective member will need to work on a minimum number of union projects or work with union signatory companies for a minimum period of time. The federal Taft-Hartley Act opens the door to non-union members to work on union projects. This can allow people in the entertainment industry to meet the threshold requirements for joining a union.
Some unions manage experience rosters, which allow a fledgling talent to be eligible to get a job through the union without paying initiation fees. They will need to pay initiation fees only after getting their first union job.
Pros and Cons of Joining a Union
Unions work to get jobs for a certain number of their members in each production, and some types of jobs in prestigious productions are hard to obtain without union membership. Union membership also can reduce the stress of working in a profession that is inherently unpredictable. Unions negotiate a minimum rate of compensation, providing a reassuring financial bottom line. They offer access to job rosters for productions seeking cast or crew members, which can make it easier to find employment. Unions can connect their members with agents who can assist them with union contracts. In some cases, they provide job skills workshops and other training programs that can help members build their careers. Unions allow members to access unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation insurance, health insurance, and retirement benefits. They simplify the finances of members by ensuring that employers take out taxes and insurance fees before paying them. On a broader level, unions lobby on behalf of their members to politicians and industry decision-makers.
On the other hand, collective bargaining can produce less favorable results than state wage laws. In some cases, a union member might receive less than the state minimum wage because the union minimum compensation rate for their work controls. Union members must pay substantial initiation fees for each union job after their first job. Members cannot work on productions (including foreign productions) that are not subject to a union contract.
Membership in Multiple Unions
An individual can join multiple unions if they are eligible and willing to pay multiple sets of dues. Most unions are tied to a type of work rather than a specific workplace, so a multitalented person might want the advantages provided by unions to advance their career in different directions at once.