By: Jess Canty
For some reason a lot has been swirling around me these days about unions - so let's chat about them.
I do want to give you some context first, however, about why I am decidedly PRO UNION.
Some of this has to do with studying theater in college and some of this has to do with spending 20 years here in LA and watching what actors and other artists go through.
SOME SAD WESTERN HISTORY
Unfortunately there was a time when the Catholic Church went so far as to excommunicate actors. In addition to having a profound impact on their livelihoods, these actors couldn't be buried in church cemeteries - something I have always found profoundly insulting when I learned of it in college. Actresses faired even worse as they were often accused of / linked to prostitution. The Catholic Church - frankly - probably didn't want the competition. They were supposed to be the center of performance, ritual, culture and spectacle. So they found a way to discredit that competition - actors and their companies. If you are interested in this history Wikipedia actually has a pretty extensive page.
THE STUDIO SYSTEM
So we arrive in the 20th century and the advent of Film. We've got a group of people that have been maligned for centuries and have a "reputation." Now add in the popularity of film, and the oligopoly that was the early studio moguls and you have a recipe for more abuse of artists' talent, skills and yes, lives.
Again according to Wikipedia:
The Guild was founded in 1933 in an effort to eliminate what were described as exploitation of Hollywood actors who were being forced into oppressive multi-year contacts with the major movie studios. Opposition to these contracts included that they did not include restrictions on work hours or minimum rest periods, and often had clauses that automatically renewed at the studios' discretion. These contracts were notorious for allowing the studios to dictate the public and private lives of the performers who signed them, and most did not have provisions to allow the performer to end the deal.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ME?
Look at that list of things that SAG - back in 1933 when it was founded - sought to fix. Now imagine where this industry, and thus your potential for making a living, would be without your particular union. And think about the non union work you have done - Long hours? Low pay? Travel not covered? Your commercial playing ad infinitum on Hulu and you got $1500? Sound familiar? I am using SAG as an example here as most of you are actors - but every artistic endeavor in this town has a union for the same reason:
And artists exist without managers, without agents, without studios, and without distributors and exhibitors. Art itself can be brought into existence without any permission needed from any of these groups.
And all of us know it - fundamentally.
Now, trust me - I think this business works best when everyone is doing their job and not taking advantage of anyone else. And I believe in the "sales" (agents) "operations" (managers) "employers" (studios) and "retail" (distributors/exhibitors) departments of this crazy Hollywood "company." But the bottom line is that without the artists creating the art in the first place - nobody else has a job.
The other truth is - that each of these other "departments" in the company of Hollywood, is trying to make as much money as they can from the art that is created because that is THEIR job.
So you have these two opposing forces: the artists - serving a higher creative need / force or will to express something, who can and would often create art without ever expecting renumeration | and everyone else who is trying to make as much money from that endeavor as possible.
ENTER STAGE LEFT: THE UNION
Like the title of this post it really should be called a YOUNION.
These organizations are made of up your fellow artists. They ARE YOU. They are only as good or as strong as their members are willing to be. They are only as active or effective as their members - and those who would be future members - are willing to be.
Why do we want you to join the union?
Because non-union work is NEVER going to support you as a full time job - and therefore will never, ever, support us. In a non union world, everyone who stands to make money from your efforts, creativity, and talent? They win. Game over. Like mortal combat style.
They win and there is nothing you or we can do about it.
They can make up how much to pay you.
They can use your work forever.
They can do all the things that SAG was fighting against when it was founded - and they will.
It is their job: to make the best thing as cheaply as possible.
As long as they don't break the law - they can do whatever they want. I don't know about you, but I don't suppose you decided to get into this business to be paid minimum wage to be pouring your emotional heart out on screen and have it be used in perpetuity for the rest of your life for no pay?
Non-union work cannot be the goal.* It is a stepping stone, it should never be more than that. Get your footage, do a few commercials, meet some (hopefully young) filmmakers and then get out (and by out, we mean IN... to the union).
WORKING "OFF THE CARD"
I do not comprehend the following:
Work your BUTT off to become eligible for your union.
Pay thousands of dollars to join your union.
Continue to take non-union work.
Once you join the union, in 99% of instances, you should be adhering to Global Rule One. The more actors who work off the card weakens the union's ability to get control of productions that are not adhering to union standards.
IF THEY CAN FIND CHEAPER, TALENTED LABOR THEY WILL - THAT IS THEIR JOB. DON'T HELP THEM!!!
I have had a number of people ask me about Fi-Core. Again, why would you shell out over $3000 to finally join the union - only to cut up your card? And when you are Fi-Core you STILL HAVE TO PAY DUES (just a reduced amount). Yep! Look it up!
Fi-Core was NOT invented by SAG.
It is a law that applies to ALL unions and was born out of auto-workers who did not agree with the political operations of their unions and so sued. The resulting law was that they were allowed to pay only their dues which went to "core" union responsibilities (i.e. negotiating wages and hours and benefits / pension) and allow them to remain in the union, but not have to participate or pay for political campaigns or causes affiliated with their unions.
Remember, SAG does not recognize Fi-Core participants as members of the union (even though you are still paying dues) because their position is that they do not have a political arm in the first place and therefore fi-core doesn't apply. They lost this fight in courts, but they still believe this to be true.
So as I say to anyone who goes Fi-Core, you better have a) a great reason (there are some very few) and b) be comfortable with the union deciding not to allow you back as a full member should you want that.
In the history of mankind those who create will always be followed by a bevy of those who desire to profit from their creations. Artists DO need these people in their lives! Those people who recognize your talent before the rest of the world does. Those employers willing to take a risk and pay for your very expensive creation to be made in the first place. The people who are great at selling you or your creations to that employer so you aren't using your own money to create your creation. Those people who will show your creation to the world and say "look at this amazing thing."
However, left un-checked these people, who profit from the creativity of others, will eventually forget that the art and artist exists without them - if they ever knew it in the first place (ahem YouTube).
They will have inflated egos.
They will start to believe they are king makers.
They will get greedy.
And they will lie, cheat and steal to protect their financial interests.
THAT IS HOW POWERFUL YOUR CREATIONS ARE!
The only thing protecting you from this inevitability, one which has repeated itself throughout at least western Euro-centric history (I am unfortunately not as well versed in Asian, South American, or African traditions) is your union or guild.
It is you banding together with your fellow artists so that you have a voice loud enough and strong enough to demand to be compensated - at least as much as everyone around you is being compensated - for the thing that was born from YOU.
That spark of a reaction that makes the audience laugh, that ONLY YOU bring to that particular scene because of the way your brain works.
That blank page that YOU filled.
That blank canvas YOU painted.
Those black dots strewn across those straight lines that YOU sang into being.
That space YOU filled with movement.
That light YOU captured on film.
YOUnify your art.
*Please note, joining the union should not be taken lightly or done hastily. We are here to help advise you on the exact time that is correct for you to join - precisely because once you do, you must only take union work. If you are non-union, focus on becoming eligible. If you are eligible, please continue to consult with your individual manager about the right time to join!