10 Popular Myths About Joining a Film Industry Union
There are some common misconceptions about how joining a film industry union will affect your career, and I had some of these misconceptions before joining a union myself.
Union membership does have its advantages, and I’m glad to have spent most of my career as a union member. But that doesn’t mean all union jobs are great and all non-union jobs are awful.
Here are ten popular myths about joining a film industry union that you should be aware of:
- You’ll always make more money working union jobs.
One of the surprising things about union contracts is that there are so many different contract levels depending on the project's budget and whether it’s new media or a first-year show. If you’re working on a low-budget union job, you could be making less money than on a larger-budget non-union job.
You’ll receive benefit contributions toward your health insurance and pension on low-budget union jobs, but those contributions will be significantly less than on full-scale union projects.
Salaries can vary widely on both union and non-union jobs, so it pays to know the salary and scope of the work before you take the job.
- Working conditions will always be much better on union jobs.
This is not necessarily true, as there’s often overlap between union and non-union crew members. For example, I’ve worked on many commercials where the director and a.d.s were DGA members, but the rest of the crew was non-union.
The working conditions for the non-union crew were the same as on fully unionized shows for meal breaks, overtime, etc.
I’ve worked on union shows with awful working conditions that technically did not violate union contract rules.
Working conditions, like salaries, can vary widely on both union and non-union shows.
What we can do is to be professional and come to work prepared, whether the show is union or non-union.
- You’ll always have healthcare benefits on union shows.
If you’ve met your union’s qualifications for healthcare coverage, you’ll have healthcare benefits. If you haven’t met those requirements, you’ll still have healthcare contributions made on your behalf on union jobs, but you won’t have healthcare coverage.
Healthcare coverage generally runs a quarter behind qualification for benefits, so it’s crucial you understand precisely when your healthcare coverage begins.
If you’re in the union but have worked many non-union jobs, you may not qualify for healthcare coverage because you haven’t made enough money on union jobs in that quarter.
It can all get confusing, so keep track of your union earnings carefully, or you may find yourself without healthcare coverage when you need it most.
- The hours will be better on union jobs.
Hahahaha. No, the hours are not necessarily better on union jobs. I’ve had several twenty-plus-hour days on union shows. Yes, that’s right – twenty-plus hours at a stretch working on set on union jobs.
Working days over sixteen hours long are incredibly unsafe and should not be allowed on union or non-union shows, but they are.
Wanting shorter workdays should not be why you join a union, because you’ll be disappointed. Brutal hours exist on union and non-union shows.
Hopefully, that will change in the future, but that’s the reality for now.
- Safety standards are always higher on union shows.
There have been three high-profile deaths in our industry in recent years, and all three occurred on union shows. Overly long workdays, unrealistic schedules, and poor decision-making all compromise safety on set, and these conditions exist in both union and non-union workplaces.
Everyone on set is responsible for safety in their department and reporting unsafe conditions.
Use the union safety hotlines to report safety violations:
IATSE safety hotline: 844-422-9273
DGA: 310-289-5326; after-hours call: 800-342-3457
- You won’t have to work as hard on a union show.
The fact that a job is union doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t work as hard as on a non-union show. I’ve gotten calls for low-budget union jobs where I would have been required to do two different jobs on set for one low salary.
I’m sure whoever took that job worked plenty hard.
You’ll have to work hard no matter the show’s union status. What you will have with a union job is benefit contributions made by the employer and the security of knowing you’ll be paid, among other things.
- You can’t work non-union if you’re a union member.
That depends on the union. SAG-AFTRA and DGA members are contractually forbidden from working non-union jobs, IATSE members are not.
If you’re an actor or an a.d. and want to keep working non-union jobs, postpone joining a union until you’re willing to commit to working only union jobs. If you work primarily in a region with mostly non-union jobs, joining a union may not be worth the expense of joining or the cost of giving up non-union work.
IATSE membership may not be worth the expense of joining and paying dues if you don’t foresee working enough union jobs to earn benefits, as the cost to join is steep and dues can be high.
These are decisions you should weigh carefully before joining any film industry union.
- Producers on union shows are much more experienced and competent.
Producing is a murky area in terms of qualifications.
I worked on a union film years ago with a producer who came from another industry and got the job because he was close friends with someone connected to the show. He’d never even been on a set before.
There are wonderful and horrible producers in both the union and non-union worlds, and you’ll probably work with both in your career.
One advantage of producers on union shows, especially in television, is that they have often worked as UPMs before moving up to producers, so they have experience and understand budgets.
However, many producers on non-union shows have extensive credits, know every aspect of film production, and are highly competent, so it’s impossible to generalize about a producer’s ability based on the show’s union status.
Reputation is far more important.
- Crews won’t be as professional on non-union shows.
Not true, as many IATSE crew members work both union and non-union shows.
A project’s budget may be a more accurate indicator of how professional the crew is, as ultra-low-budget shows with minuscule salaries often can’t attract highly qualified crews because of the low pay.
Top-notch crew members gravitate to projects with budgets to pay their rates, so you may find great crews on union and non-union projects.
Professionalism comes with experience.
- You’ll always be an independent contractor whether the job is union or not.
You’ll always be a freelancer, but not necessarily an independent contractor. Sometimes you may be a freelance employee.
You’re generally considered an employee on union shows, with taxes taken out of your paycheck. On non-union shows, you may still be a freelance employee or an independent contractor. It varies.
Many crew members also form loan-out companies, and they’re paid through their companies. Yes, it can be confusing.
You’ll need to understand your employment status when you accept the job, so ask questions if you’re unsure.
Here’s a post on my blog that goes into more detail about different types of employment in the industry.
Hopefully, detailing some of these misconceptions about joining a film industry union clarifies some of the confusion surrounding union membership.
Being a union member in our industry has some excellent benefits, but it isn’t a magical cure for all the problems in the industry.
It’s up to us to choose our jobs carefully and make the best decisions possible for long-term career success.