How to decide whether to join an actor's union or not

The days of closed shop unions in acting (in the UK) are long gone. In order to appear as a professional actor you no longer NEED to be in a union. However, you need to consider the benefits that membership of a union will give to you and you need to also think carefully about things that the unions do for you and your fellow performers. This second aspect is purely a moral judgement. The unions will work just as hard without your membership fees as they will without them, but what if everybody felt that way?

The first issue though is more straightforward. What benefits do unions provide to performers that they wouldn't have if they hadn't joined up?

It's hard to provide a complete list, but some of the main benefits include representation in disputes with employers, public liability insurance, contract negotiation, and even discounts on products and services.

Taken from the website of Equity (the leading UK actors' union, but also representing singers, dancers, choreographers, stage managers, theatre directors and designers, variety and circus artists, television and radio presenters, walk-on and supporting artists, models, stunt performers and directors and theatre fight directors), here are some bullet points of what the union feels it provides:

- Negotiates

- Organises

- Campaigns and lobbies

- Supports

- Protects

- Influences

- Provides Services

- Listens

- Advises

- Takes action

- Is a community

Equity also says that: The central activity of Equity is to negotiate minimum terms and conditions of employment throughout the entire world of entertainment and to endeavour to ensure these take account of social, economic and technological changes. We look to the future by negotiating employment agreements that embrace new and emerging technologies so satellite, digital television, new media, mobisodes, internet only productions, podcasting and so on are all covered, as are the more traditional areas.

Alternatively, BECTU states that:

The key aims of the union are to:

- protect jobs

- increase membership

- win new recognition agreements

- improve pay and conditions of service, including pensions.

Equity also provides services such as the Special Attention List of employers which didn't pay performers or were taken through the courts or refused to use Equity contracts, and they set up the British Equity Collection Society (BECS) to collect and distribute monies to UK based actors for audiovisual performances throughout the European Union territories.

The moral judgement of whether to join a union based on the services it provides to the industry as a whole is one for each individual and difficult to discuss without bringing in personal opinion. The main question to consider is whether one feels that the contracts, pay and conditions agreements negotiated by the unions provide you with benefit and whether they can continue to do these things without money from their members. Additionally it is worth contemplating that the more members a union has, the more likely it is that employers will feel compelled to listen.

Some useful links: