SAG-AFTRA - Paying Into Pension and Health

The last ten years have seen a dramatic decrease in union voice-over work especially as it pertains to the union’s middle class (who makes up this middle class is debatable, but I believe it pertains to earning somewhere between 25-100K). One of the great ironies with the decrease in earning is that theoretically there is more voice-over work than any other time in history especially with the increase of promos, narrations, corporate and educational videos, and audio books. So where is the disconnect? Much of the promo and narration work is non-jurisdictional and the corporate and educational markets have very few large corporate Signatories. The end result is a lot of work without union ties.

Attempting to Buy In

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s when non-jurisdictional promo and narration work first evolved, there was a handful of talent with individual corporations who believed their corporation could act as a union Signatory. They, in turn, could buy into pension and health by deducting the fees from their non-jurisdictional work and pay themselves the remainder of the money. SAG and AFTRA were both rightfully concerned about the manipulation of the contracts as well as fraud and took a hard line to abolish the practice. Unfortunately, very little was done to organize the cable television networks and while a couple hundred million was dispersed to union talent, very little of that money ended up in the union pension and health fund.

New Frontiers in Corporate and Educational

As the web has become ubiquitous in our lives, so have corporate, educational and all manners of explainer videos on tens of thousands of websites including Youtube. The rates for this work vary dramatically from union scale to rates above and below, but the common denominator is very little is done under union contracts.

Why is so little work union? Three reasons:

1) Web searches very rarely lead to union talent agents and instead, non-union agents, individual talent and pay to play sites are creating one-time rates depending on what they believe the market bears.

2) The companies producing the work are generally very small production or graphics companies who are daunted (or unfamiliar) by union Signatory contracts as well as writing multiple checks for talent, state and local taxes, and union pension and health.

3) Many union talents look at corporate and educational work as a grey area and do not perceive working without a contract as working non-union.

Reexamining Buying In

There is very little reason to believe that small production companies spread throughout the US and internationally will ever embrace union rules and regulations yet that does not mean they will not pay competitive rates. Like the promo market, 25 years ago, there will very likely be little organizing of these production companies as well as few incentives for the production companies to sign off on union agreements.

If that’s the case, talent should be able to charge market rates and back end the fees so individuals can pay into their P&H.

In the end, buying into these kinds of jobs produces three results;

  • More union work for middle class actors
  • Higher rates as union talent and their agents will not have to navigate the perils of union versus non-union and can simply quote competitive rates
  • More money applied to union pension and health

Will buying in have unintended consequences? Of course but every compromise has its share of issues. Regardless, there is just too much potential money on the table and union leaders should immediately start thoughtful conversations on how buying in can be done without talent jeopardizing their union membership.

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