• The Hollywood Reporter on LinkedIn
  • Follow THR on Pinterest

SAG-AFTRA Merger Means Tougher Admissions, Potentially Costlier Membership (Exclusive)

SAG/AFTRA
Chris Godley

The changes in entrance rules and initiation fees will be of great interest to current and prospective members of both unions and close off a key route to a SAG card.

AFTRA’s open door policy – which allows anyone to join the union online by paying the initiation fee – will end if SAG and AFTRA merge, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. In its place will be new SAG-AFTRA rules that primarily mirror SAG’s existing ones – a set of requirements that have made a meme out of “How do I get my SAG card?”

In addition, the price is changing: at $3,000, the new initiation fee is higher than SAG’s $2,277 or AFTRA’s $1,600, but less than the two combined.

That translates to a 23% savings for actors who would otherwise join both unions – as many do, since the overwhelming majority of new scripted television series have gone AFTRA since 2009, while movies remain a SAG-only business.

There’s good news for existing members who aren’t dual cardholders: according to a source, those who paid only one union’s initiation fee won’t have to pay the difference between that amount and the higher SAG-AFTRA fee. They’ll be grandfathered at the lower fee.

Those who are dual cardholders and previously paid initial fees that amounted to more than $3,000 – such as $2,277 plus $1,600, i.e., $3,877) – might wonder whether the new union will refund the difference. That’s unknown, although one would assume it’s unlikely.

Initiation fees aren’t the only cost associated with union membership: there are also annual dues. As THR previously reported, those will decrease for some members and increase for others under a merged union.

The new entrance rules will allow someone to join if they score a job as a principal under a SAG-AFTRA contract; work for 3 days as a background performer (i.e., extra) in a SAG-AFTRA background role; are a member of a sister union for at least a year and have worked as a principal performer; or are an employee at a company that the union board has targeted for organizing, such as new cable networks or small broadcast stations.

The first three methods are essentially the same as under existing SAG rules, while the fourth is new. The tighter requirements mark a new development for DJs, announcers, newspersons and sportscasters, although the fourth option is obviously intended to soften the change, at least for those groups. It’s not known how they’ll react, although THR is told that G1 members from those constituencies agreed to the change.

The difficulty of qualifying under the guild’s rules have helped make SAG membership aspirational and contributed to the value of the organization’s “brand name.”

For actors, the tighter rules and increased dues mark a change from AFTRA’s current approach. The changes would take effect upon ratification of the merger proposal, which wouldn’t happen until around mid-March at the earliest, given typical SAG and AFTRA referendum timetables.

However, AFTRA’s board could decide at its meeting this weekend to tighten entrance procedures in order to forestall a “land rush” of new members during the weeks that the proposal will be out for balloting – or even under legal challenge. Whether it will take such action is unknown, although a flood of new membership applications in the next few days could precipitate such action.

Nonetheless, aspiring actors who jump at the chance to join AFTRA now – in order to be grandfathered in at the lower initiation fee and essentially non-existent entrance requirements – may be making a mistake. That’s because union membership may cut them off from non-union work too early in their careers – i.e., at a time when the more competitive union jobs are out of their reach. For that reason, advice columns and books often counsel new actors to be cautious about joining SAG or AFTRA early on – even if they’ve qualified for the coveted SAG card.

The new membership rules are technical enough to warrant explanation:

1. Hired for a SAG (or, post-merger, SAG-AFTRA) principal role. This is the classic way for someone to get admitted to a union, and would be unchanged under SAG-AFTRA: the non-union actor get hired for a union job. This isn’t easy, because existing SAG members are theoretically first in line.

As soon as the actor books the job, he or she becomes “SAG Eligible.” Thirty days later, the actor becomes “SAG Must Join,” and can no longer work SAG jobs without joining the union. The union enforces this rule by requiring producers to verify the actor’s status by contacting the union, a procedure oddly called “Station 12.” There don’t seem to be any Stations 1 through 11.

(Alternatively, a SAG Must Join actor can elect the legally-protected “financial core” status, and pay slightly reduced dues without actually joining. Fi-core is an option that allows people to work union jobs and get the benefits of those jobs, such as residuals, but also them to work non-union despite SAG’s Global Rule 1 to the contrary (which is a rule that will largely survive the transition to SAG-AFTRA, at least for actors). For that reason, fi-core is despised by unions, but in any case it’s chosen by very few members of SAG or other entertainment unions. Another wrinkle: in “right to work” states – primarily conservative “red states” – people can’t be required to join a union even if they don’t go fi-core.)

2. Three days as a background performer in a SAG (or, post-merger, SAG-AFTRA) background role. In a SAG covered movie or a SAG (or AFTRA) covered TV show, a certain number of background positions are generally subject to union minimums and conditions; the remainder are not. A non-union actor who scores one of the SAG-covered positions gets a voucher attesting to that fact. Three vouchers and the performer can (and must) join the guild.

Critics say the so-called three voucher system is open to abuse, since assistant directors in practice have wide latitude in determining who gets the valuable union chits. Some want to loosen the rule, while many SAG background performers want the requirements tightened further. Although the system will survive the transition to SAG-AFTRA, there is apparently some board sentiment for later changing it.

3. Sister union membership. A performer who is a member of a performers union that’s part of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America – the archaic “Artistes” is not a typo – for at least a year and has had at least one principal role (e.g., not a background role, or extra) is eligible to join any other Four A’s union. Among those unions are SAG, AFTRA and Actor’s Equity. That reciprocity has made AFTRA’s open membership policy a route to SAG membership. If SAG and AFTRA merge, that relatively easy route disappears, although it will remain for members of Equity (which is not an open door union) or the several smaller, more specialized components of the Four A’s.

4. Employees of targeted employers. This one is new: if the SAG-AFTRA board decides to campaign for an employer to go union, it can decide to offer the employees union membership. This is apparently intended to address concerns of DJs, announcers, newspersons and sportscasters, who have operated to date under AFTRA’s open door membership policy and loosely-interpreted “No Contract, No Work” rule rather than SAG’s tighter membership requirements and stringent Global Rule 1.

Some technical details of interest in the regions outside of major production centers: Under current SAG and AFTRA rules, lower initiation fees are available to actors who join in some smaller markets. It’s not known whether this will be the case in the new union.

Also, under current SAG rules, such members who later work in higher-fee areas such as New York or Los Angeles may have to pay the difference between the discounted fee and the higher fee, such as $2,277. With the higher fee increasing the $3,000 in the new union (assuming merger passes), that might mean that current members who paid a discounted local fee would end up making up a larger difference than anticipated. This is unknown at this time.

Some of these details may become clear when the merger proposal is released next week, but perhaps not all of them, in light of the fact that a source told THR earlier in the week that some matters will be left to the discretion of the new union’s board.

Email: jhandel@att.net

Twitter: @jhandel