7 Ways Joining a Union Can Help Your Film Industry Career
Can joining a union help your career prospects in the film industry? It depends on where you are and what you’re doing.
However, being a member of a union can be highly helpful to your career in the right circumstances. You’ll often hear the terms ‘union’ and ‘guild’ used interchangeably in our industry.
That’s because although unions traditionally differed from guilds in that they were for employees, while guilds were for skilled tradespeople who were independent contractors, that distinction is no longer accurate for those working in the film industry.
For example, I’m a member of the Directors Guild, but I’m always considered an employee, not an independent contractor. So in this post, I use the term ‘union’ to cover the industry guilds as well.
Here’s what I’ve found to be seven of the ways being a member of a union has helped my career and can help yours:
- Guaranteed rates and better pay.
On union jobs, the producers can’t ask you to work below scale. If the company is a signatory to the union agreement, they have agreed to pay at least scale rates.
You can always try to negotiate an above-scale rate, but you’re always guaranteed at least scale. The rate is almost always far better than what non-union jobs are paying.
And most importantly, you’re guaranteed to get paid.
- Healthcare and pension benefits.
I can’t overestimate the importance of these benefits, as you may already realize if you’ve been struggling to find affordable healthcare.
Of course, you have to qualify by working a certain amount each year, but having those benefits has been a lifesaver for many union members, including me. When everyone was unemployed for months due to the pandemic in 2020, the unions also stepped up and paid members’ COBRA costs when needed.
The pension benefits union members receive are another excellent benefit to consider.
- The ability to work on a broad range of shows.
If you ever want to work on films and TV shows in highly unionized markets such as L.A., you’ll need to be in a union. You can’t have a thriving career in these markets without being union.
If you plan to live and work in a right-to-work state with a significant amount of non-union work, it may not be worth it for you to join a union. But if you plan to work in any larger production markets, joining a union is essential for getting work.
You’ll have a lot more jobs open to you in various locations as a union member.
- Increased educational opportunities.
Unions have many in-person and online classes available to members to continue their industry education and update their skills. I receive a list from the DGA every month with webinars and networking events of all kinds.
I can’t count all the screenings, panel discussions, and other educational offerings I’ve taken advantage of through the guild over the years. I consider that education as one of the main benefits of my union membership.
In our industry, there’s always something new to learn. Being a union member opens the door to many free educational opportunities for career growth.
We can never stop learning if we want professional growth.
- Networking opportunities.
The ability to network with our peers is crucial in our industry. We’re in a business where contacts are necessary to get work.
It’s why, as a trainee, my classmates and I were rotated on jobs. We needed to work with as many people as possible to establish the contacts we’d need to get hired.
Unions offer some excellent networking opportunities, both by attending events and serving on committees. I’ve found networking at these events essential for maintaining contacts and meeting new people.
- Unions will fight for your contractual rights.
Years ago, I worked on a job that refused to pay me the rate for a 7th day worked. Because it was a union job, I called the guild about it, and they made sure I got paid what I was owed.
My advice is to work for reputable companies, especially if you’re working non-union.
Union members should never waive hard-won contractual rights.
- Increased safety on set.
Unions educate their members about safety through required classes administered by Contract Services. We work in a wide variety of locations in our industry.
Unions provide essential training to work safely on set in all kinds of conditions. They also provide safety hotlines to call to report unsafe work conditions, sexual harassment, and racial harassment.
We often perform our jobs in time-pressured situations, making safety classes especially important.
A few downsides of joining a union:
- The initiation fees are thousands of dollars. That’s why I suggest you be sure that you’ll be working enough union jobs to make membership worthwhile. Otherwise, you’ll have spent thousands for a membership from which you’re not reaping the benefits.
- You have to pay dues, whether you’re working or not. Unions charge a base rate of dues, no matter how much you’ve worked. However, it can be challenging to pay dues when you haven’t worked in a while. I never found that to be a problem, as I worked enough jobs to make membership worthwhile, but it can seem like a waste of money if you're not working many union jobs.
- Unions can call strikes, and then work stops overnight. Industry strikes are not common, but they do happen, most notably with the WGA and SAG. Even if another union goes on strike, no union member will cross picket lines. While union strikes are rare, we’ve recently seen with the possibility of an IATSE strike how potentially devastating an industry shutdown can be.
Union membership can be beneficial to your career in many ways.
We saw how hard IATSE fought for improved working conditions for members. Union members stood united in their demands, even with the possibility of a strike looming over the industry.
That’s a powerful example of the main benefit of being in a union. There’s an organization fighting on your behalf for improved wages and working conditions.
A union can do what you can’t do on your own. And if you’re in the right market, joining a union is well worth the price of membership.
Links to some industry union websites:
IATSE website with links to locals for various crafts HERE.
Directors Guild of America website HERE.
SAG-AFTRA website HERE.