(Note: We’re referring to union vs. non-union in the US; if you live in another country, your experience may differ. Please keep this in mind).
This has been a debate for a very long time and will probably continue to be. Online work has complicated the issue because suddenly we’re all dealing with a global market that crosses borders, boundaries, and oceans on a whim and in the blink of an eye.
Both union and non-union have advantages and disadvantages; ultimately, it’s a decision that you, as a voice-actor, will have to make. Like everything else, it’s of critical importance that you do your research and weigh up the pros and cons. Seasoned pros will usually tell you it’s best to be a union member because, if you run into trouble, the union will take up arms on your behalf and fight your battles for you. It’s also often claimed that union jobs are of higher quality and pay better.
Don’t forget the Internet has become the great equalizer—especially for talented newbies. If you fall into this category, it will probably be in your best interests to first cut your teeth as a non-union talent until you’ve gained enough work experience. Unions tend to be very competitive environments and if you join a professional union from the get-go, you may end up in a talent pool where you are simply out of your league.
It’s equally important to realize that when you join a union, you pledge to no longer accept non-union work. The reason for this is solidarity: you stand together with your fellow members so that you can negotiate better working conditions and pay for all of you as a collective. It’s worth noting, however, that a union in any given country only functions within the borders of that country and not beyond them.
I think unions are valuable, but they do need to adapt to a more modern age.
For current union pay rates in the United States, click here.
Non-union work might generally pay less, but keep this in mind: the online industry has made those who function within it a lot more efficient: a union talent will in all probability get less work because his fee is much higher, while a non-union talent can do several jobs a day for less money, but in the end—when you add up all the work—they’ll be earning the same.
You’re also on your own with non-union work and getting paid less than you agreed to (or not at all) is entirely your problem. The same applies to a non-union agent. The chances of your being taken advantage of, or the agent taking a far higher commission that the industry average, are issues that you may be forced to deal with.
Still, it would be safe to say that everyone starts off in the non-union environment, and many will move beyond it as soon as they have gained sufficient experience so they can make a comfortable income in the more lucrative, safer and possibly more fulfilling work environment they have access to as union member.
Unions are great but they aren’t magical fairies that are going to drop VO jobs in your lap. YOU are in charge of how much you book.
Understand that once you’re committed, you’re committed. Given the inevitable transparency of the Internet, if you get caught doing non-union work as a union member, you personal brand and your reputation will take a devastating hit once it’s splashed on discussion forums and professional networks. ‘Naming and shaming’ is a popular tactic these days.
On the other hand as a non-union voice-actor, the chances are good that your talent will be unfairly exploited and you will always be paid less than you deserve while the client you work for makes all the money.
We don’t want to argue either way. What we do want to say to you is this: be careful, okay?
(About being a signatory: SAG-AFTRA Signatory Producers have access to the world’s most talented and professional performers in the industry for their projects, but becoming a signatory does require some paperwork.)