Union vs Non-Union Voice Acting
To join a union as a voice actor, or not? That is the question. The answer? It’s complicated.
The debate between union voice acting and non-union voice acting continues on a daily basis. It constantly adapts to the ever-changing landscape of online voice acting. Voice acting jobs transcend country borders and cross into the global market now more than ever.
The reasons why you might join a union for voice acting, and why you might stay away from one, continue to grow in both number and specificity. The widening of the online voice market and increase in the available voice over jobs certainly play a part.
Hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll be better equipped with knowledge to make an educated decision for yourself. A decision that’ll grant your voice entrepreneurship the momentum and success any voice actor would desire, and a decision that makes sense for your life.
We’ll be covering the pros and cons of joining the SAG-AFTRA union (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), what you might want to consider before joining it, and what it’s like to be a non-union voice actor.
- A union is an organized group of workers who unite to make decisions about conditions affecting their work
- Unions grant benefits such as health insurance and limited session hours for strenuous work
- Unions protect you from unfair work, and provides opportunities for better-paying jobs
- Unions can be costly, and you can’t accept most non-union jobs after joining
What is a union?
Work unions more or less do the same thing. “A labor union or trade union is an organized group of workers who unite to make decisions about conditions affecting their work.”
For voice actors, unions can offer work protections, such as being paid a fair rate within a reasonable amount of time, safe working conditions, and benefits like health insurance and pension.
A quick look at the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, otherwise renowned as SAG-AFTRA, will give you a good idea of what’s available for people who join the union.
Of course, such benefits aren’t free. It costs money to join a union, and unions take a fee out of your pay. So, like most things in a voice over entrepreneurship, it’s an investment. And there are requirements to meet to join SAG-AFTRA, such as having completed one union job.
Sometimes, voice actors come from different industries, like on-camera acting. In these cases, you might already be a member of SAG-AFTRA. Otherwise, you’ll have to meet the requirements to join SAG-AFTRA.
Pros of joining a union as a voice actor
Guaranteed minimum rates
Perhaps the greatest pro union voice actors will cite is the minimum pay and fair professional rates, though not all voice over work guarantees minimum pay or rates. But in most cases, minimum pay for voice over work means more consistent pay, and often better pay than non-union voice acting jobs. SAG-AFTRA has minimum pay rates listed.
Check out SAG-AFTRA’s rate estimates per job and Global Voice Acting Academy’s pay chart. You’ll notice the estimates are in the hundreds to thousands of dollars, which is often more than what some jobs offer.
Many union voice actors enjoy healthcare, life insurance, retirement benefits, and enjoy having work rules such as days offs and mandatory breaks. Voice acting can be a taxing job, and having these benefits, including protection from over-strenuous work, can be a life-saver in a voice over career.
Jon Bailey, otherwise known as The Epic Voice Guy, is a SAG-AFTRA voice actor. He’s played as Optimus Prime, voiced for many other games, and voices Youtube’s popular Honest Trailers. For him, being a SAG member helps him take care of his family.
*Note: you must earn $25,950 in a year through union work before you qualify for health insurance
Protection and security
When work disputes arise, the union is there to help. Unions can enforce limits to working day hours, grant sick days, and ensure you have a safe place to work. They also make sure you get paid fairly.
Cons of joining a union as a voice actor
It can be costly
SAG-AFTRA can cost $3000 to join (though it can be lower or higher in certain states), costs $226.96 in annual base dues, and work dues are calculated at 1.575% of covered earnings up to $500,000. For new voice actors who aren’t making a lot of money in their career, joining SAG-AFTRA might not be an option.
Your job choice is limited
When you join SAG-AFTRA, you follow its policies. That includes sticking to jobs that meet certain requirements, because taking jobs otherwise is a conflict of interest. It breaches the commitment to fair and equitable jobs that people have worked for.
The overall loss of jobs can be a significant con for voice actors who continue to rely on non-union jobs.
Non-union voice acting and Financial Core
If you join SAG-AFTRA, then decide you still want to take non-union jobs, you might declare FiCore status. FiCore, or Financial Core, is a legal status that allows you to take non-union jobs after joining a union, but you sacrifice some privileges like voting within SAG-AFTRA.
Declaring Fi-Core status enables you to do voice over work that union members might otherwise not be able to do, while still enjoying some of the benefits that a SAG-AFTRA member would.
Some people in the industry look down upon benefitting from the union while going beyond its rules that’ve been set to improve working conditions and fees for voice actors. Declaring Fi-Core status is not standing in solidarity with the union.
In some cases, declaring FiCore status can have adverse effects on your career opportunities, such as acquiring a poor reputation and even being barred from work. It’s not legal to bar someone from work because they’ve declared Fi-Core status, but voice actors have said it happens anyway.
Why would a voice actor declare FiCore-status or stay non-union?
As a non-union or FiCore voice actor, you might sacrifice more chances to have minimum, secure pay (not every voice over genre or job offers it) for the ability to access more non-unionized jobs (and union jobs at the same time if you’re FiCore). Having access to more jobs is a huge factor to consider because online voice acting platforms like Voice123 have opened up many opportunities for freelance work.
The amount of non-union jobs you can find on these platforms can easily add up to union work, especially if you’ve built lasting and recurring relationships with clients. In some cases, you can convert non-union work into union work, so joining a union doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sacrifice all of your previously developed non-union relationships.
It’s definitely possible to make a career without joining a union. Jon notes, “There are those people out there that are just completely non-union and they do great. They’re just very smart and they do their research.”
We encourage voice actors to research their worth. Some big companies, to save money, may offer non-union jobs that pay much less than the same job if it was union work. As a resume builder, these types of non-union jobs can be helpful. But it’s important to know how much your service is worth, and to be paid fairly as your career progresses.
Should you join a union as a voice actor?
It depends. If you haven’t built up a sustainable income as a voice actor or through other work, or if it meant not being able to do the non-union work you’ve been doing for years, it might be the wrong move to make. If you’re financially prepared, or know that the genres of voice over you want to get into generally offer union work, it could be the best move you make for your career.
In any case, the benefits are obvious. Joining SAG-AFTRA means securing rights for you as a voice actor. Rights to fair pay, fair working conditions, and fair benefits to cover the cost of the job.
The question is more a matter of whether or not the genres of voice over you work in offer primarily union work. Animation, video games and commercial jobs often do.
On top of that, a big consideration is letting go of the non-union work and relationships you’ve built over years. The situations are niche and specific to each voice actor, so we encourage you to research what’s best for your particular situation if you’re considering joining SAG-AFTRA.
In Jon’s case, he says working in the union is what makes his voice acting career worth it, and that union work saves him a lot of money.
“That's a huge chunk of this job — how much money it saves me. I don't have to pay out of pocket for benefits that come with it." - Jon Bailey
Our recommendation is to carefully consider the financial implications of joining a union, and how it might affect your relationships with your existing clients. By then, hopefully you’ll have enough experience being the CEO of your own business to see if you’re fine handling the risks as a fee-free, non-union voice actor; or whether you’d like to enjoy the benefits of becoming a union voice actor.
Either way, we just hope that you’re careful with accepting voice acting jobs. It’s an exhilarating and wonderful career. But non-union voice actors, if not wary, can be taken advantage of. And if unprepared, union voice actors may find themselves feeling restricted by the union.
However, if you prioritize your wellness, we’re sure either choice can be the right choice for you!
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