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Last updated 12/1/07

When An Actor Should Join A Union

An Actor's Mouth

There are three essential unions for professional actors.  Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).  All three unions have a one-time initiation fee, plus annual dues, which are calculated based on your earnings under that union’s jurisdiction.  When you join the union you are no longer allowed to take a non-union role, so when you are just starting out it is usually wise to remain non-union for a while to gain experience by doing non-union roles.

Check List To Consider When Joining A Union

The three main unions for professional actors are: Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).
It is not a union’s responsibility to find you a job or keep you in a job once you have found one.  Just because an actor is a member of a union does not mean he or she is any more talented, experienced or qualified to work than you or any other actor.
Some conventional wisdom about joining unions for a new actor is this: your goal should be to generate opportunities to build your resume and to develop talent and skills.  This is what the vast majority of non-union work opportunities will help you to do.  However, if you sign on with a union before taking advantage of these opportunities, they will be lost.
The goals of the union are to establish minimums for actors: minimums for work, minimums for residuals, minimums for conditions on a set and minimums for dues that a member will pay.
A major benefit of union membership is access to agents and casting directors through guild-sponsored seminars and showcases.
A phone call to the membership departments or a visit to the web sites of the unions will get you membership information with all the details about how to join and the benefits you get through joining the particular union.
Use our communication tools (chat room; message board; messaging tools etc.) to reach others who can provide you with more help and information
Working in summer stock or at a dinner theater is a professional job, even though the theater does not work under union rules or offer union contracts.  But all Broadway theaters, major Off-Broadway productions, and the best known regional theaters, operate according to Actors’ Equity Association rules, so in order to act in such productions you will have to be a union member.  All studio produced, and most independent feature films, as well as television soap operas, series, and movies, require that you be a member of a different union, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) has some overlapping responsibilities shared with SAG, but represents a wider range of professionals in various entertainment categories, from newspersons to magicians. SAG is primarily concerned with wages and working conditions of performers working on film.


American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA)

AFTRA is the easiest of the three performers’ unions to join, merely requiring you to fill out an application and pay the initiation fee.  The membership includes actors, announcers, news broadcasters, singers (including royalty artists and background singers), dancers, sportscasters, disc jockeys, talk show hosts and others. In addition, AFTRA is:

1.  A national labor union affiliated with the AFL-CIO,

2.  AFTRA represents actors and other professional performers in TV, radio, sound recordings, commercials, non-broadcast/industrial programs and interactive programs such as CD-ROMS.

260 Madison Avenue, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10016
Email: aftra@aftra.com
5757 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA  90036

Terms To Know

Bump Up. An upgrade in pay and billing when an Extra says a few words or other special activity in a scene.

Day-Player. Someone who is hired at SAG scale (minimum) for the day.

Golden Time. Refers to overtime paid after working sixteen hours straight, equal to one’s daily rate every hour.

Meal Penalty. Additional monies paid if a working cast or crew member has not been fed after the six hours allotted by union contracts.

Must Join. A situation in which an actor has used up the 30-day grace period to join a union and upon hiring for the next job must join that union as mandated by the Taft-Hartley law.

Principal Player. An actor with lines, paid at least SAG scale.

SAG-eligible. A non-union actor who is eligible to join SAG by being cast in a principal role, being a member of an affiliated union and having had a principal role under that union’s jurisdiction, or performing three days of union extra work. Also known as a “must join.”

SAG-franchised. Status of an agent or agency that has signed papers with SAG and agrees to operate within SAG guidelines.

Scale. Minimum SAG daily wage for principal actors.

Sister Union. One or more additional unions you join after the first one. The first union you join is your parent union.

Taft-Hartley Law. A law that allows non-union actors to work under a union contract for their first role. After that, they must join the union.

Under-Five (U/5). An acting role designation calling for five lines or less on AFTRA shows. This category has a specific pay rate, which is less than a day-player.

Union Scale. Minimum wage scale earned in employment by members of AFTRA, AF of M, SAG, etc.

Actors’ Equity Association (AEA)

Actors’ Equity represents over 40,000 theatre performers and stage managers.  The way you become a member of AEA is:

1.  Auditioning for and being hired on an Equity contract;

2.  Being a member in good standing of another performers’ union for at least one year and supplying proof of work under their jurisdiction.

3.  Going through the Equity Membership Candidacy Program which allows you to join Equity if you have completed 50 weeks at an Equity theatre which offers the Candidacy program.

165 West 46th Street
New York, NY  10036
Email: info@actorsequity.org
5757 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1
Los Angeles, CA  90036

Screen Actors Guild (SAG)

The Screen Actors Guild is organized into three governing divisions, and each division is governed by its own Rules of Procedure. Essentially SAG negotiates and enforces collective bargaining agreements that establish equitable levels of compensation, benefits, and working conditions for performers. SAG has jurisdiction over movies, television and commercials produced on film.  You can join SAG in one of three ways:

1.  By being cast and hired to work in a principal or speaking role for a SAG signatory producer.

2.  After a minimum of one year’s membership in an affiliated performers’ union, with proof of principal work under that union’s jurisdiction.

3.  Three days covered SAG extra work.


1515 Broadway, 44th Floor
New York, NY  10036
Email: webpage link
5757 Wilshire Boulevard
Hollywood, CA  90036

Other Vital Unions And Guilds For The Performing Artist


ACTRA Toronto Performers
625 Church Street, Suite 200
Toronto, ON
M4Y 2G1
Phone: 416-928-2278
National Organization of Canadian Performers Working in Film, Television, Video and all other Recorded Media.
Email: info@actratoronto.com
815 16th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC  20006
Phone: 202-637-5000
Fax: 202-637-5058
Email: feedback@aflcio.org
American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM)
4400 Mac Arthur Blvd NW
Suite 306
Washington, DC 20007
Phone: 202-337-9325
Fax: 202-338-3787
Union that represents professional musicians.
Email: local161-710@afm.org
American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA)
1430 Broadway, 14th Floor
New York, NY  10018
Phone: 212-265-3687
Fax: 212-262-9088
The labor organization that represents the men and women who create America's operatic, choral and dance heritage.
Email: AGMA@MusicalArtists.org
American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA)
184 5th Avenue  
New York, NY  10010
Phone: 212-675-1003
363 7th Avenue
New York, NY  10001
Phone: 646-674-0135
Represents performers in Broadway, Off-Broadway, Cabaret productions, night club entertainers and theme park performers.
Artists Rights Foundation
7920 Sunset Boulevard, 6th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Phone: 323-436-5060
Fax: 323-436-5061
Send Email from this webpage: http://www.artistsrights.org/contact/default.htm
Directors Guild of America (DGA)
7920 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90046
Phone: 310-289-2000 / 800-421-4173
Fax: 310-289-2029
Represents members in theatrical, industrial, educational and documentary films, as well as television live, filmed and taped radio, videos and commercials.
Email: info@dga.org
Industry Labor Guide
Comprehensive resource, covering Union & Guild contracts for all major Production Centers.
Entertainment Publishers, Inc.
11693 San Vicente Blvd., # 206
Los Angeles, CA. 90049
Phone: 310-440-5800
Toll free: 800-820-7601
Fax: 310-440-5812
Email: epi@EntertainmentPublisher.com
International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE )
1430 Broadway
20th Floor
New York, NY 10018
Phone: 212-730-1770
Fax: 212-730-7809
Represents technicians, artisans and craftspersons in the entertainment industry, including live theater, film and television production.
Email: organizing@iatse-intl.org
NABET/CWA Local 57
3210 W. Burbank Blvd., Suite D,
Burbank, CA 91505
Phone: 818-567-9935
Fax: 818-567-9968
Communications Workers of America.
Email: webmaster@nabet57.com
Professional Musicians, Local 47
817 Vine St., Hollywood CA 90038
Phone: 323-462-2161, x150
A 100-plus-year old labor organization representing over 9,000 local members.
Email: membership@promusic47.org
Writers Guild of America, East
555 West 57th Street, Suite 1230
New York, NY 10019
Phone: 212-767-7800
Fax: 212-582-1909
Negotiates Minimum Basic Agreements with major producers of motion pictures and television programs as well as contracts for staff members at radio and television stations.  
Writers Guild of America, West
7000 West Third Street
Los Angeles, California 90048
Phone: 323-951-4000
Toll Free: 800-548-4532
Is the sole collective bargaining representative for writers in the motion picture, broadcast, cable, interactive and new media industries.
Email: theater@wga.org

Useful Books

An Actors Guide: Making It in New York City
by Glenn Alterman
288 pages; (February 2002)
Allworth Press; ISBN: 1581152132
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Acting
by Paul Baldwin, John Malone, John Williams Malone
384 pages; (May 2001)
Alpha Books; ISBN: 0028641531
How to Be a Working Actor: The Insider's Guide to Finding Jobs in Theater, Film, and Television
by Mari Lyn Henry, Lynne Rogers
319 pages; (September 1994)
Back Stage Books; ISBN: 0823088944
The Business of Acting: Learn the Skills You Need to Build the Career You Want
by Brad Lemack, Isabel Sanford
192 pages; (May 2002)
SCB International; ISBN: 0971541000
An Actor’s Guide: Your First Year in Hollywood
by Michael Saint Nicholas
272 pages; (June 2000)
Allworth Press; ISBN: 158115058X
Acting As a Business: Strategies for Success
by Brian O'Neil
109 pages; (April 1999)
Reed Elsevier Incorporated ISBN: 0325001235

Click the titles of the above books for their availability, or enter the title of a book not shown in the above listing in the search box below.


Search for magazines by entering the title or keywords in the search box below.


Relevant Associations & Organizations

Actors' Fund of America
729 Seventh Avenue, 10th Floor
New York, New York  10019
Phone: 212-221-7300
Fax: 212-764-0238
A nonprofit organization founded in 1882, committed to helping show business professionals in times of need with programs in health, human services and work programs.
Email: ccooke@actorsfund.org
AFTRA-SAG Federal Credit Union
12711 Ventura Blvd. #200
Studio City, CA 91604
Phone: 818-487-6400
Fax: 818-766-9552
Financial services that benefit members of AFTRA, SAG, AGVA and other Select Employee Groups.
Email: admin@aftrasagfcu.com
American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA)
405 Lexington Avenue, 18th Floor
New York, NY 10174-1801
Phone: 212-682-2500
Fax: 212-682-8391
Along with the Association of National Advertisers, it is officially recognized by the National Labor Relations Board to negotiate labor union agreements with commercial performers affiliated with SAG, AFTRA, and the AFM.
Email: louise@aaaa.org
National Association of Talent Representatives (NATR)
c/o The Gage Group
315 West 57th St., #4H
New York, NY 10019  
Phone: 212-262-5696 -or- 212-541-5250
Fax: 212-956-7466  
Email: gageny@aol.com
SAG Pension & Health Funds
Burbank Plan Office
3601 West Olive Avenue
P.O. Box 7830
Burbank, CA  91510-7830
Phone: 818-954-9400 or 800-777-4013 (outside the Los Angeles Area)
Fax: 818-953-9880
This site provides you with the most current information regarding your health and pension benefits
Email: psd@sagph.org
Dramatists Guild of America
1501 Broadway, Suite 701
New York, NY 10036
Phone: 212-398-9366
Fax: 212-944-0420
The website of this association of Playwrights, Composers, and Lyricists holds information about membership, copyright, contracts, events & seminars, ways to contact playwrights and their agents, and articles from The Dramatist.
Email: Igor@Dramaguild.com
For a full listing of helpful associations and organizations click here

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