What Do Actor's Unions Actually Do?
by Justin Sevakis,
This might come across as a naive question but what does it mean when a role is 'non-union' and why are so many anime roles non-union? For clarity I am a trade union rep myself but for an office job in the UK and I have an idea of what SAG, Equity and the other arts unions are. Why does it matter if an actor is a member of these or not? I mean I understand that some employers won't recognise TUs and that unlike the UK you can be fired in many states in the US their are "fire at will laws" but wouldn't an actors subs come from their own paychecks so why does it make a difference if they are in a union or not?
Being an actor is very unlike any other profession. Unless you're SUPER successful, you spend most of your time unemployed. You are constantly having to go to auditions -- job interviews, essentially -- which you don't get paid for. A production (an individual project, that is) can call actors back several times for the same role. Actors are often asked to do uncomfortable things, like shout terrible things at other actors, or disrobe and simulate sex. They're asked to endure prothetic makeup that can take hours to apply, work absolutely insane hours, and uproot their lives and essentially move to other countries for months-long shoots at a time.
The allure of acting is such that the people who really dedicate themselves to it have to be "game" for almost anything. Being open and vulnerable is essential to a good performance. Showbiz can be an icky business, and competition for work is so fierce that less scrupulous producers and directors all too often treat actors extremely poorly. Many have used work opportunities to coerce sexual favors from actors. Actors have been injured and even killed trying to perform clearly-dangerous stunts. And MANY, MANY actors get stiffed on payments, especially when it comes to royalties.
This is why actors need unions. Screen Actor's Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists merged a few years ago to create SAG-AFTRA, the biggest actor's union in the world. They represent over 160,000 performers, including actors, broadcasters, and other on-camera and on-microphone talent. (Stage work is covered by a separate union, Actor's Equity.)
SAG-AFTRA tracks two things: the performers and the producers. For a producer of a project to be allowed to work with SAG-AFTRA performers, they have to sign a contract and promise to abide by the rules of the union. This includes things like minimum payment for different jobs, workplace rules, mandatory break times, rules for employing minors, safety rules and oversight, tracking of work hours, and a host of other things. And in order to make the union powerful enough to enforce those rules, SAG-AFTRA performers can ONLY work in union-affiliated productions. If the producer doesn't play by the rules, the union can withdraw all of the actors, shutting down the production.
If you're pursuing being an actor as your career, being a member is basically mandatory. It qualifies you for health insurance (and, this being the United States, you REALLY need health insurance), a pension and a retirement fund. Many newbie actors make it a point to get cast in the handful of bit parts that will qualify them for membership, because only union actors are considered for significant roles in almost any TV show or movie. For producers, abiding by union rules can be a chore -- it's a lot of paperwork, and probably more money. But it's usually the only way to get decent talent.
SAG-AFTRA is quite powerful, particularly in New York and Los Angeles. They have producer's agreements with every major studio and broadcaster, and even most minor ones. They've taken producers to court, they've even repossessed the rights to films that don't pay the actors their royalties. But their advocacy has limits. They can't anticipate every possible way a producer or director will mistreat actors. They've had trouble extending their power over new technologies like video games. And they generally don't get involved if an actor gets fired. (Actors can get fired for no reason at any time. It's just part of how it works, because it's art and casting is a subjective artistic decision.) And they won't assist an actor who's out of work -- it's on them to keep getting hired to make ends meet (or have a day job). But regardless, they're usually an actor's most powerful advocate.
A few states, like Texas, are "right to work" states -- that is, they have laws that make it so that a union can't tell a member who they can and can't work for. (This weakens the unions, since they can no longer cut off workers from a non-compliant company.) But in other states, an actor can be sanctioned, or even tossed out of the union for working on non-union shows. That is, if they get caught. With voice work, getting caught isn't so common, so actors who need the work will often just ask to be credited under a pseudonym. They get money, and the union never finds out.
As I've previously noted, anime dubbing is considered "foreign language dubbing" by SAG-AFTRA, which is one of the lowest paying tiers in the entire system. The pay scale for SAG-AFTRA isn't drastically more than most non-union anime voice actors get paid to begin with. That said, being a union-compliant production adds a lot of paperwork and other managerial headaches to a show, as well as a contribution to the actors' health and retirement funds. Since anime is dubbed very quickly and cheaply, most of the companies producing them don't bother.
As a result, Anime dubbing doesn't count towards the minimum work required to maintain an actor's benefits, and if something goes wrong and the actor gets mistreated or stiffed, the actor doesn't have a big union to turn to. But sometimes money, and possibly the love of anime, is more important. If the choice is between taking a role in a show, or taking another extended shift at your day job, any actor would go for the role, even if it's not a good gig and they're treated badly. And they'll probably be grateful for the work, and stay quiet about anything bad that happened. After all, you never know where it might lead.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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