5 Important Truths About Non-Union and Union Work in the Film Industry
Is it non-union or union? You hear that question asked a lot in our industry. The film industry consists of the two overlapping areas of non-union and union work. Anyone starting out in the industry should have some idea of what to expect working in each area.
Now we're seeing two unions, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, on strike at the same time, so you may be wondering whether joining a film industry union is still worth pursuing. My answer is yes, it's still beneficial to your long-term career to be a union member but be prepared for some bumps, such as strikes, along the way.
Union membership in many industries has decreased over the years, but it has remained strong and even increased in the film industry. The DGA had around 10,000 members when I joined thirty-plus years ago. It now has over 18,000 members. Membership in the IATSE industry locals has similarly increased.
Recently, film industry animation writers and visual effects workers have voted to unionize because they're tired of low pay, long hours, and often, no benefits. Now there's talk of P.A.s joining IATSE, and that comes from a recent online meeting of one of the IATSE locals.
That doesn’t mean there’s no non-union work, though. On the contrary, there’s plenty of it, especially outside the Los Angeles and New York markets.
What You Need to Know About Non-Union and Union Work
Here are five essential facts to know about both non-union and union work:
1. The film industry in Los Angeles and New York is heavily unionized.
The high cost of living in both places makes them difficult places to start your career if you don’t already live there. However, you don’t have to be in either of those places to pursue a career in the film industry.
Many people in the industry have long, successful careers without working in L.A. or New York.
New Mexico and Georgia have both become major centers for filming, and the cost of living is far lower than in L.A. or N.Y. Arizona has a strong market for commercial production, and much of that work is non-union.
Arizona also recently passed a tax incentive bill that went into effect in January 2023, and new film studios have been announced for the Phoenix area. There should be much more film work coming to the state in the near future.
If you want to work in the film industry, start where you are and make as many contacts as possible with people who work in the industry there. You can always decide further on in your career, when you're more experienced if you want to move to a larger market to work.
2. To join one of the IATSE locals, you need thirty consecutive days on a union show, or work on a show that becomes union.
Each department on set has an IATSE local, such as the grips local 80 or the set lighting local 728. The IATSE locals sometimes allow ‘permits’ to work during busy times when no union members are available. However, if a union member becomes available, they have job preference over the ‘permit.’
A more common way to get days has been for a non-union show to go union. Then the crew has the option of joining an IATSE local. I’ve seen this happen on several shows I’ve worked on.
Joining one of the IATSE locals isn’t cheap. For example, IA local 728 dues to join are now about $7,000. The camera department local IA 600 is about $10,000 to join. Plus union members pay quarterly dues based on their earnings working on union jobs.
Joining a film union is a big commitment. You should be very sure you want an industry career in that department before you consider joining the union and paying those high initiation fees.
3. You can make as much, if not more, working non-union.
Non-union doesn’t mean a job pays poorly. It does mean that you won’t have the benefits, i.e., the contributions made on your behalf to union healthcare and pension plans.
There are also numerous contracts in each of the unions, ranging from ultra-low-budget to full union scale projects. Pay, safety, and working conditions can vary widely from one category of work to another, even though all are union jobs.
It's crucial you know which contract you'll be working under on a union job so you don't have any unpleasant surprises. TV pilots, first-year series, streaming companies, and new media all have below-scale deals with the unions.
There are also various required safety courses that IATSE members are required to take through Contract Services, so you'll be trained in the safest industry practices for your department. (You won't have to pay to take these courses.)
Each safety course is relevant to that specific department, and some are now offered online. Even experienced union members will learn something new from these thorough safety courses, and they're always being updated.
Many people in our industry work exclusively non-union and make a decent living. But they have to pay their healthcare costs and have no employer pension contributions made on their behalf.
Working union jobs, once you reach the earnings threshold, you get healthcare benefits. With the cost of healthcare being what it is, this is a significant benefit and includes dental, vision, and prescription drug coverage.
4. Some jobs are a mix of union and non-union workers.
I’ve worked on jobs that were SAG-AFTRA and DGA but not IA. I’ve also worked on jobs that were DGA but otherwise non-union, which is often common for commercials filmed outside L.A.
If a DGA director is shooting the commercial, then the a.d. team are all DGA members. These hybrid sets are a good way for non-union crew people to get work.
Right-to-work states like Arizona have many jobs with this mix.
Members of the IATSE locals are not forbidden from working non-union jobs, so if you join an IA local, you can still work non-union.
5. If you’re in the union, only earnings covered by union work count towards qualifying for healthcare benefits and pension contributions.
Many union members in the IA locals go back and forth between working both union and non-union jobs. It’s more common now than ever, with many people still trying to make up lost wages from the pandemic industry shutdown and, more recently, the strikes.
All the industry unions covered COBRA healthcare costs for qualifying members for several months during the pandemic. This coverage was a crucial benefit of being a union member when so many in our industry struggled financially.
Working conditions may vary on non-union sets. Meal penalties, grace periods, overtime, and proper rest periods are not guaranteed when working these jobs. These are hard-won points in the negotiated contract on union shows.
Warning About Working Non-Union if You're in SAG-AFTRA or the DGA
As stated above, IATSE members can work non-union if they choose to do so without being penalized by the union.
Both SAG-AFTRA and the DGA forbid members from accepting non-union work except in limited circumstances and penalize them for doing so. So if you're considering joining either of these guilds, be aware that you will no longer be able to accept most non-union jobs that you may have relied on for work before joining.
However, both guilds have low-budget agreements to cover work on union signatory projects that have low or even ultra-low budgets. Work covered under these low-budget contracts still counts toward your health and pension benefits, although the employers make considerably smaller contributions than on full union-scale jobs.
These are just a few of the things to know about the different categories of work in our industry. Non-union jobs are an excellent way to learn what the industry is about before deciding whether you eventually want to join a union. I worked for several years as a non-union P.A. before I became a trainee and eventually joined the DGA, and I acquired valuable experience by doing that.
If you plan on working in L.A., you’ll undoubtedly want to become a union member for maximum job opportunities. If you’d rather work in smaller markets with little union work, union membership may not be a significant advantage. Union membership is on the upswing, though, not just in the film industry but in other industries, too.
I wrote another post on the advantages, and some disadvantages, of joining a union in the film industry. You can find it HERE.
It all depends on your long-term career goals. The industry is changing rapidly, and knowing where you see yourself in a few years is advantageous to your career.
If you want to work on big projects with the top people in your field in L.A. or New York, the sooner you can join the union, the better. Union initiation fees regularly increase, and it will only get more expensive to join any of the unions in the future.