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The Battle for Union Anime Dubs

by Evan Minto,

Crunchyroll and FUNimation are competitors no longer. Now merged into a single company under their parent company Sony, this new incarnation of Crunchyroll is the largest and most powerful anime company outside of Japan. Almost immediately after the merger was announced, voice actor Stephanie Sheh (Usagi in Sailor Moon) tweeted “Now that Funimation & Crunchyroll are merging, can we get some union dubs?” Actors like Crispin Freeman and Ben Diskin chimed in to support Sheh's request, arguing that Sony's backing means Crunchyroll can afford to switch over to union dubbing. But what exactly are union dubs? And why are actors demanding them now?

When it comes to film and TV acting in the U.S., there's really only one labor union: the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a.k.a. SAG-AFTRA or SAG. As Justin Sevakis explained in an Answerman column back in 2019, the union represents over 160,000 performers — including voice actors — and negotiates contracts with studios to guarantee consistent pay, working conditions, contributions toward health insurance and a pension, and preferential casting for union members. A union dub is simply a show with a SAG contract. If a studio doesn't have a contract, members aren't allowed to work for them, and the studio has to hire non-union talent instead.

Josh Grelle records a line for FUNimation's dub of Drifters.

“Employers are conditioned to believe that any actor who asks for too much can easily be replaced with someone else,” says voice actor Kyle McCarley (Mob in Mob Psycho 100). “But when we have the support of all our peers, we can stand firm on certain minimum requirements without fear of being replaced.”

The majority of notable film and TV actors are union members, meaning that most productions also have to be union in order to cast them. The dubbing industry, however, is historically under-unionized, especially when it comes to anime. I spoke to multiple actors who struggled to name a Crunchyroll or FUNimation show that they were sure was union, though GKIDS and Aniplex produce some union dubs and Netflix is all union. Companies can afford to go non-union because many voice actors aren't SAG members, and voice actors can justify not joining the union because so many productions are non-union anyway.

Pay rates for dubbing are among the lowest in the acting business, and the problem is even worse in anime. “Larger and larger companies are getting involved in this process, and yet wages remain the same,” says voice actor Marin Miller (Izanami in B: The Beginning). “Money is obviously being made, but it is not trickling down.” Consider Jujutsu Kaisen 0, the anime film that took the number two spot in the U.S. box office in its opening weekend. As voice actor Michael Schwalbe discussed in a recent Twitter thread, Jujutsu Kaisen's English voice actors were likely paid just $150 to $600 each, based on the going rate in the industry. That's not a per-hour rate. That's the total amount.

The reasons date back to the origins of the industry, according to the Coalition of Dubbing Actors (CODA), a group that campaigns on behalf of voice actors. Dubbing began as a fairly small part of the film world, used only for localizing foreign films and short sessions for cleaning up dialogue. Because it wasn't viewed with a lot of respect, the pay was low and SAG didn't prioritize it in negotiations. Anime brought dubbing into the mainstream, but the rates remained unchanged. It was such a low priority for SAG that, until recently, they were relying on a dubbing contract that was last updated in 2003.

One problem that's somewhat unique to anime: Japanese licensors can balk at the terms in union contracts, especially the requirement to pay actors residuals for 10 years after a show's release. But thanks to lobbying from CODA, SAG released a new contract in 2021, increasing hourly rates for actors to $87 and simplifying the residuals requirement. As a result, a streaming service with fewer than 15 million subscribers like Crunchyroll only has to pay the hourly rate, while larger services, theatrical films, and primetime TV channels pay a flat “buyout” fee in lieu of residuals for a union show.

Crunchyroll didn't provide a comment when asked about their past and future union dubbing policies. According to CODA, the pay rates for FUNimation shows ranged from $35 to $75 per hour depending on the number of hours worked. Video game and anime voice actor Sara Secora (Hayate in Rumble Garanndoll) says that's not nearly enough. She'd like to see the rate go up to $125 to $150 an hour with a two-hour minimum (so the actor is paid for at least two hours even for a short session). Citing shows like Dragon Ball that require “strenuous sessions that could be vocally damaging,” she also wants to see hazard pay for actors. Miller and Steve Blum (Spike in Cowboy Bebop) echoed her concerns. “I saw people damage themselves permanently for some of the lowest pay in the industry,” says Blum.

Then there's the elephant in the room: FUNimation's dubs were produced largely in Texas, a “right-to-work” state, and will likely remain there under Crunchyroll management. Right-to-work laws, which exist in 27 mostly Republican-controlled U.S. states, allow workers to take a job at a company with a union contract without having to join the union or pay dues. This significantly reduces SAG's influence over studios by removing a source of funding and their biggest bargaining chip: access to top talent. That means far fewer union productions than states without right-to-work laws, like California and New York. And the union penalizes members for working non-union shows, driving some actors who work primarily with Texas-based companies — anime voice actors, for instance — to forego union membership entirely.

“The main struggle with getting union dubs in a right-to-work state [...] stems from the vast amount of misinformation about how the union actually works,” says CODA. “Actor's unions, especially those with the track record of SAG-AFTRA, nearly always result in workers being treated better and paid more fairly.” Some actors, including Sheh herself, have opted for what's called “Financial Core,” or “Fi-Core,” status. These performers are officially not union members, but pay a minimal set of dues to be eligible for both union and non-union shows. Blum sees this as a way to “play both sides,” and even Sheh says that union actors who take non-union work “allow studios to keep going non-union because they can find plenty of skilled actors for cheaper.” Despite her status, she said she turns down 80% of the non-union auditions she receives.

What will it take for anime companies to move to union dubbing? CODA says sometimes it's as simple as the actors asking, but if the dubbing studio or (more often) their client is insistent, actors may need to agree to collectively walk away from the show. McCarley says in one case he was re-cast when he said he would only work on a union contract, but has also seen actors negotiate rates higher than SAG's on non-union shows. “[Crunchyroll and FUNimation] seem to be willing to pay more money, at least on a case-by-case basis, to actively avoid going union.”

Multiple actors I talked to said that the paperwork and additional cost of a union contract isn't nearly as onerous as many producers assume it is. Studios can even hire non-union actors for union shows by filing what's called a “Taft-Hartley Report” (named after the 1947 law curtailing certain union rules). Non-union actors then become eligible for union membership, so more union shows means more opportunities for new actors to access the benefits of SAG.

Sheh and others have tried to talk companies into moving over to union dubbing, but while some have made the switch, Crunchyroll and FUNimation haven't budged. Groups like CODA and actors like Sheh, Miller, and Secora are working to improve awareness of the benefits of SAG-AFTRA membership and dispel myths about union dubs. Sheh is hopeful. “The support for unionization among the fandom has been overwhelming,” she says. “The fans are the consumers. They are the ones that make the big companies money. Their voice matters. Keep the conversation alive on social media and tag the studios.”

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