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Becoming a Union Member: Benefits and Wages
By Sherri Berger


The two unions representing both on-camera and voice over performers are AFTRA and SAG. AFTRA is an anagram for American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The more highly recognized SAG stands for Screen Actors Guild.

Each union has a specific function with jurisdiction in specific areas of commercials and industrial narrations. For example, any voice over for radio, videotaped television programs and/or commercials, and most industrial narrations fall under the AFTRA code. Voice overs for filmed TV commercials or even TV demos, television programs and feature films, fall under the SAG code. So, as you can see, to work in both radio and television, you will most likely have to join both AFTRA and SAG.


Initially, no, you do not need to be a member of a union; but if you want work with the major agencies and receive residuals, yes, it will be necessary to join both AFTRA and SAG to be a major contender in the voice over business.

Both union and non-union work is available in most every market, and in the beginning of your career, you will probably “cut your teeth” on non-union work. I mean, let’s face it. No one is born a union member. Some people may get booked immediately on a union job and perhaps never work in the non-union arena while others may start their careers doing non-union work until union opportunities come their way. Some have been able to carve out lucrative careers doing non-union work.

Non-union work allows you to gain experience, practice and grow and learn all there is to know about the business, so that by the time you become a member of AFTRA and SAG, you will be somewhat of a seasoned professional. Non-union work emanates from advertising agencies or companies who are not signatories to the AFTRA/SAG code. Union members are not allowed to work for non-signatories (those companies that have not signed a union contract which states that they will only hire union performers and adhere to the AFTRA/SAG union code). As a non-union performer, you may accept work from a non-signatory advertising agency or company at any mutually agreed upon rate, whereas a union member may work only for a signatory agency or company at a pre-set scale rate regulated by the union.

Scale is the minimum wage you can earn for a particular job. There are a variety of circumstances where performers are able to negotiate above scale fees, but the important thing to remember when doing a union job is that each market has its union- negotiated standardized rates so you are guaranteed a minimum rate for specific jobs. For a copy of the union rate card in your area, call your union office or go on line to www.aftra.org or www.sag.org.


There are many benefits to being and AFTRA/SAG member. First and foremost, you are guaranteed a specific rate of payment, a minimum payment known as “scale”, and you are eligible to receive residuals for as long as a commercial runs. There are rules that signatories must follow and if they are not met, legal action can be taken by your local union office on your behalf at no cost to you. For example, your client is required to pay you within 12 working days. For every day your paycheck is late, you are entitled to a late fee. If you are not paid at all, union personnel will fight for your payment.

Another benefit are the rules for working conditions with regards to payment, i.e., lunch breaks, recording time limitations, etc. These rules and regulations are enforced by your local union office. And last, but by no means least, with qualified earnings you are eligible for the AFTRA/SAG Health and Retirement Plan.


A session fee is the one-time payment you receive for each spot you do. As a union member, each type of job has a set scale fee.

A residual payment is the “usage fee” for airing the spot you recorded. In other words, for every radio/TV spot or industrial narration you do, you will be paid scale—a session fee which is regulated by AFTRA and SAG. In almost every situation, expect to work for scale unless otherwise negotiated. Whether you do one, two or three commercials during a recording session, you are paid per spot, or in other words, a session fee for each spot your record. You are paid that fee whether it runs on the air or not. If it does air, you will be paid a “usage fee” or residual. If it’s a TV spot (but not cable), you will be paid a residual payment every time it runs. The amount depends on whether it is a local, regional, national, network, or wild spot. At this time, cable fees are lower and are paid on a cycle basis.

If it’s a radio spot, you will be paid on a cycle basis . . . normally on a 13 week cycle period. So, whether the spot runs one time or 100 times in a 13 week period, you will be paid the same amount. Again, the amount paid depends on whether the spot is network or in “spot” markets. Your payment amount is also based on the size of the markets with New York, L.A., and Chicago as the three major markets in that order.

This voice over Helpful Hint is brought to you by Sherri Berger.
For more helpful hints and information about Sherri Berger or Voice Over U, visit www.sherriberger.com.
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