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To Join or Not To JoinThere's a decision that performing artists face as they progress through their careers: whether or not to join one or more of the performing arts unions. There's no single correct answer. But we believe that the more information you have about performing arts unions, the easier your decision will be.

At any given time, actual employment for members of the various performing arts unions is only a small percentage of the total membership. Quite often, that number is in the single digits. Needless to say, those figures are not very encouraging. But there's always that chance that you can procure employment in a high-quality professional environment. So people still join.

The Unions

AEA - Actors' Equity Association
This union, established in 1913, represents actors and stage managers in the legitimate theatre in the United States.

AFTRA - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
This union represents broadcast performers, including television actors and performers, radio announcers.

AGMA - American Guild of Musical Artists
This union represents performers, directors, and stage managers in the opera, dance, oratorio, concert and recital fields.

AGVA - American Guild of Variety Artists
This union represents certain performers in Broadway, off-Broadway and cabaret productions, as well as night club entertainers and theme park performers.

DGA - Dramatists Guild of America
This union is the professional association of playwrights, composers and lyricists.

IATSE - International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees
This union represents technical employees for stage and motion pictures, including property technicians, electricians, carpenters, riggers, audio visual technicians, and wardrobe personnel.

SAG - Screen Actors Guild
This union, founded in 1933, represents actors in feature films, short films, and certain digital projects.

SSDC - Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers
Union which represents choreographers and directors for Broadway, national tours, regional theatres, dinner theatres and summer stock, as well as choreographers for television, music video and film.

WGA - Writers Guild of America
Established in 1933, this union represents approximately 8,000 writers of film, television and interactive games.

While we can't make your decision for you, we can present some questions you can ask yourself to help you consider all the angles when anticipating joining a union:

  • Where am I in my career? Sometimes, performers look at getting into a union as a goal in itself. Union membership seems somehow to create an air of legitimacy or professionalism for the performer. But the reality is this: Quite often, performers who join unions too early lose the opportunity to gain needed experience. That's because, once you're in a union, you're "playing with the big boys" (and girls) and the competition is tougher. The stark reality of joining a union is often that one's opportunities sometimes initially become more limited. On the other hand, if you're working regularly in non-union positions and you're looking for new challenges and creative experiences above and beyond what you have been able to accomplish so far, perhaps union employment is right for you.

  • Am I willing to start again at the bottom rung of the ladder? If you're accustomed to playing first chair in a non-union orchestra, you may lose that status when you join the union. If you've been doing lead roles for years in non-union theatre productions, you may find yourself in the chorus once again in union shows. There's no rule that says it has to work out that way. But it often does, simply because, in union situations, you will be competing with the most experienced professionals.

  • How much money will it cost me to join the union initially? Sometimes the initial costs of getting into a union can be prohibitive. Each union has its own fee structure, so it's important to understand what your financial commitment to the union will be. (If you're faced with the opportunity of joining a union, be sure to request specific information about what it will cost you.) In many cases, union initiation fees can be deducted from your pay in increments over the course of your contract, making the financial impact of this rather large expense less burdensome. Additionally, performing arts unions often have a reduced initiation fee structure if you're already in another of the performing arts unions. Ask about these options if you're offered a job that requires that you join the union.

  • What are the annual costs of the union? While annual union dues are generally pretty reasonable, it's wise to factor in those annual costs when making your initial decision about joining. Most unions have a sliding scale, so that your annual commitment to the union is based, at least in part, on how much money you earn from contracts covered by that union. Ask yourself this: will I be able to afford the annual fees even if I'm not working?

  • Must I join the union to procure a particular job? Some contracts governed by some of the performing arts unions allow non-union personnel to work alongside union members. This depends upon the union and the contract, of course.

  • What kind of trial period does the union offer? Some of the unions allow you to work without joining for a period of time. Others have had apprenticeship or candidate programs. In some cases, you can work for a period of time without a permanent obligation to the union. This sort of arrangement is often a good way to get your feet wet in a union environment without locking yourself into union membership. You can get to know the level of professionalism that will be required of you.

  • What market am I in? Joining a union often means that you can no longer work in non-union situations. So, be sure to learn about the union opportunities in the market that you will be working in. For example, smaller cities may have one or two union venues, while larger metropolitan areas may have many. You'll probably have to do a little research to find out about the specifics of your area. While an offer of union employment today may sound alluring, you must still consider what life will be like after your current contract expires.

Copyright 1999. TVW Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

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