State of the Non-Union

August 5, 2009  |  Articles

Guten Morgen,

Today I wish to speak about the difference between being Union or Non-Union voice over talent and how this can effect your earning potential and whether you can work on certain projects or not.

Prior to writing this post I must admit I didn’t know the difference between being a Union Voice Over talent and being Non-Union. As it stands I cannot be a part of either unions because I am neither American nor do I reside in the United States (where the two most powerful unions in our business are based). Nor do I know if these two things matter for joining.

So I started digging and found this exert from Susan Berkley’s Website in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) area:

Do I need to join a union to do Voiceovers?


Not necessarily. One can be quite successful as non-union voiceover talent but there are some risks which I will explain in a moment.

There are two unions which govern voiceover work: AFTRA (American Federation of TV and Radio Artists) and SAG (the Screen Actors Guild). The talent unions offer many benefits which members fought long and hard to gain. For instance, the client must pay you scale and residuals and contribute to a pension and welfare fund on your behalf. Should a client not pay talent for work done under a union contract, the union will sue for collection on your behalf.

Generally, union work is the only work that pays residuals so your earning potential is tremendous. Without a special waiver, union talent is not allowed to do non-union work.

To join the unions there is a substantial initiation fee of over $1000 for each union. This fee will vary depending on the size of your local market. Dues are paid annually depending on talent payments earned during the previous year. AFTRA is an open union, but SAG requires a contract to join.

There is a separate union scale rate for voiceovers on TV, radio, cartoons, and non-broadcast usage which differs by market size. Contact the local near you for rates in your area. Because union initiation fees are so high, I advise most people to wait until they book a union job before joining.

When you work as non-union talent, you are on your own. You negotiate your rate with the client and you are responsible for collecting your talent payment. Residuals are generally not paid for non-union work. Unless you negotiate your own contract, the client has the right to use your recording any way he likes without paying you another dime beyond what you received initially.

So lets recap:

  1. As a union talent you get paid Scale and Residuals and you get Pension and welfare money (for later).
  2. You are not allowed to work on Non-union jobs without a waiver.
  3. You Pay over $1,000 as an initial initiation fee to join either one of the unions mentioned and this fee will vary depending on the size of your local market.
  4. Dues are paid annually depending on talent Payments earned during previous year (kinda like taxes).
  5. AFTRA is an open union but SAG requires a contract to join.
  6. There is a seperate union scale rate for different voiceover market segmants so calculating the rate could get a big difficult.
  7. Should a client not pay talent for work done under a union contract, the union will sue for collection on your behalf.

So sounds like a good deal if you have the initial joining fee.. Can get sufficient work to justify joining. And want a non governmental agency to tax you on the work you did the year before. But you do get someone who will go after a non paying client and get your money back for you. Here is a website that contains some of the Union rates for these two organizations. I believe these rates have not changed since 2008.

In canada they have something called ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema Television and Radio Artist) of which I am not a member but as far as I understand it … if I wish to work as a VO in canada I need to be a member… Doug de Nance, Bryan Cox, Jodi Krangle or any one of my fellow canadians can fill us in on the deets in the comments section if they will.

What Does it Mean for Me?

Doesn’t mean much for me since I live in Cairo and although I would love to get residuals paid to the Taji Estate that could make me and my descendants wealthy (HA!) I cannot foresee in any kind of close or distant future my being involved with any of these associations.

For one thing I am not interested in paying $1,000 to join nor will I like to pay a fee that is a margin of what I earned the previous year. But I do like the idea of forming a union that is the governing body for Voice Over Artists.

I mean think about it. If you are just a part of the union in your area then you are subject to the laws of your country, state, county, town, and so on and so forth.

But why not have something like SaVoa.org which is an accreditation organization that can cater to a global crowd act as a Voice Over Global Union.

Is VOGU a Good Name?

No its not… I strongly advised myself not to even mention it but the idea still stands. Instead of SaVoa being just an accreditation system we can have an organization that includes both accreditation and contains some union facilitation, like for instance a legal body that goes after non paying clients and intimidates them into paying via legal action.

The State of Non-Union

So I don’t get paid as much as the Union guys. And I don’t have a pension and welfare system. I don’t get access to Union contracts. I don’t pay a margin of my previous year profits, I can work on whatever project I want to.

Overall its not such a bad thing being Non-Union. Very recently I got an email from one of my Sentinels telling me of a recent trend involving Union folk to working under a different name so they can do voice overs for non-union jobs.

This is because the economy is shot to hell and there are very little union jobs coming through. You have to do what you can to survive. Right?

The Ethical Implications

Well for one thing you are in breach of contract if you decide to do non-union jobs when your contract with the union stipulates that you only do union jobs. So Ethically you are a cheating liar who wants the perks of being union but cannot man up to the restrictions that being union entails.

That’s kind of sad really. I mean with the union and non-union camps being distinctly apart you get the bigger contracts, larger pay checks and someone to fight for you.

We (the non-union folk) struggle to find work, and depending on how smart we are can get shafted by an evil client. But we can work on whatever jobs we want to and we don’t have any dues except for the pay to play websites like voices.com and voice123

If you want non-union work… leave your union. Its that simple. You cannot disguise your voice… your voice is your brand… people can tell voices apart. They can recognize their favorite actor’s voice in animated movies and through that can add more personality to the animated character.

Telling It Like It Is

That’s what I do. I won’t lie to you or make you feel better for “Doing what you have to do” because there are more choices in life than Lie and Cheat Vs. Do the Right thing.

Yes there are voice agencies out there who will help you along and get you work under your new name. Why? Because they wont pay your union dues. Because if you fall out with them you can’t go to your union and tell them that you cheated on them because you’ll be in breach of contract and liable for damages. Because they get a fully trained accredited voice over artist with his own studio who will work for less, and without those pesky residuals, pension and welfare markups and a watchdog that will keep them in line.

Thats it for now

Yeah so I think I’ve said all that I had to say about this. I think people should respect the promises they make and if there is a legitimate way out of them (the contracts) then leave your union and join our ranks. But keep in mind what we go through and how we sometimes suffer.

I’ve said my mind…. what’s on yours?

Taji


3 Comments


  1. Hello Taji,

    I am non-union as well. Union actors do have an option called Financial Core that allows them to work union and non-union jobs legitimately. They do lose some of their union benefits for accepting this status. I also believe there is a cost to do this. It is also frowned upon by the unions as I understand it.

    Just adding my two cents.

    Lisa~

  2. Well written
    There is always two sides and your points are very well put. I too am non-union, but I do want to clarify something you said. You CAN do non-union work in Canada. I’m living proof, as are Doug deNance and some of the others you’ve mentioned. In fact unless you live in either Vancouver or Toronto, it’s really hard to make a living as a voice talent unless you are non-union and can pursue your own work. There just isn’t enough union work to go around in most parts of Canada. This doesn’t mean we should give up, but it is a fact.

    I would have joined the union, had it followed me, but I go after my own work, and then I’m responsible for me and my outcome. Still have agents, but this is my business and I know I’ll work hard at it and make it grow. I try to rely on me. After all, I am the product.

    I believe the union can be an amazing thing, if I live in the right city and I’m invited to join, but for me, I’ve developed MANY years of clients that I just wouldn’t want to give up. Now if I lived in LA, New York or Toronto, then I could go union and enjoy…but I do like being in control of my income.

    My biggest comment about union is that when it was established, it was exactly what was needed as it was for the worker, but some where along the line (this goes for ANY kind of union) it turned into a business and suddenly the rules changed a bit.

    I am pro work, and pro value and I respect that I must demand high value out of my clients and not demean the industry so I try to charge as a union member would….after all, I have to pay for my own benefits (which there are non as non-union)

    Those who are solid in the union are doing well and there is always room for more….as Taji has said though, location is truly everything. If you can go union, it’s a great path, but do follow the rules. Afterall, this is what the union represents.

    thanks for the good read. Well researched

    All my best
    Deb Munro
    Voice Talent/Coach
    http://www.debsvoice.com

  3. Hey Deb… thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

    I was, in fact, a Torontonian. That is where I lived for the time I stayed in Canada. That’s a tough city to work in if you don’t have the right connections… Its sad but if I had the connections I do now .. then.. I’d be golden!

    anyway… to go back to the issue of location… that is ultimately why there is no reason for me to broach the subject of unions in my career. Unless, like in the article, a new organization that is global and not as tightly wound up as the american / canadian unions are was established.

    And even if I did live in north america .. there might be no point in me joining the unions because of my Arabic Language specialization. Like I was telling another reader of mine, in a niche where your options are limited why go union?

    Taji