This is a question many of my voice acting students wonder about, and the landscape is quite different from when I started my career, so let’s dig in.
Actors Unions: The Basics
In the US, voice actors are governed by the same union as actors: SAG-AFTRA. In Canada, the unions are ACTRA for Anglophone productions, and UDA for French ones.
It’s important to note that when you join a union, you’re promising to adhere to their rules which prevent you from performing on gigs that are not governed by the union. This means that as a union member, you cannot perform non-union work.
At the time of this writing, there is a strike in the US for theatrical contracts. These are contracts negotiated for on-camera actors when working in film and TV. There may be another strike coming up for union video game contracts as well. But the contract for commercials (whether you’re acting on-camera or behind the microphone in VO) is not under strike.
Wherever you are, you might be eligible to join a union. If you’re eligible to join SAG-AFTRA, you’ll receive a Taft-Hartley voucher, and become SAG-Eligible. In Canada, you’d also know if you were eligible to join either ACTRA or UDA (you would have accumulated professional credits).
And if none of this sounds familiar, you’re non-union! And btw, even if you are eligible to join a union, you are still in fact non-union until you actually join a union!
Non-Union Voice Talent
If you’re not a member of any of the unions above, you work in the non-union sector. So when you see breakdowns that don’t mention a union, or say non-union, you can work on them. A union breakdown will always mention that it’s a union production.
If you’re eligible to join a union and you’re considering it, hear me out.
And no matter what I say next, know that I’m a big supporter of the unions. I believe in them, I’ve enjoyed the benefits and thank goodness for their pension and healthcare plans.
That said, if you’re just starting out today, the landscape is very different from when I started.
I want to talk about an option that’s available to you if you work in the United States.
Understanding Fi-Core for Voice Actors
If you’re eligible to join SAG-AFTRA, you have the option of becoming Fi-Core. The term Fi-Core is short for Financial Core. To have this status, you must join the union. You would then submit a written request to enable your “Financial Core” status.
As far as the union is concerned, they would no longer treat you like a member, but you would be paying your union dues. The union would call you a fee-paying non-member. Note that the union forbids Fi-Core actors from saying that they’re union members.
Regardless of this, you could actually work on union productions because you would have a union number and you’d be paying dues. But, the Fi-Core status would also allow you to work non-union. So you would be in the unique position of being able to do both.
Fi-Core Pros & Cons
The Fi-Core status is more common in right-to-work states because they have legislation that protects employees from being forced, as a condition of employment, to join a union. Florida and Texas are right-to-work states. California is not, but technically you can still have the Fi-Core status in California. That said, because it isn’t a right-to-work state, and supports unions, the Ficore status is rather shunned.
Even so, those making the creative decision of hiring you wouldn’t necessarily know that you’re Fi-Core (there are Fi-Core actors in LA). But it can get political because if you tell a union producer, who’s a supporter of the union, that you’re Fi-Core, they might not want you to work on their production. Still, you have the option.
(If you’re in Canada, there’s no such status. You’re either union or non-union.)
Lessons from the Voice Acting Trenches
All that said, I would advise that you wait until you absolutely have to join the union, to join it. And at that point, if you have an agent or a manager, ask for their guidance and professional experience with the Fi-Core status. Don’t request Fi-Core status without professional guidance.
And if you do film and TV work in the US, you really want to discuss this status with your film and TV agent, because being Fi-Core on set may have a different impact on your career than on VO productions.
The reason I would wait is because even though I think unions are crucial to setting the baseline for rates and behavior in an industry, things have changed dramatically from when I started.
The number of union productions has shrunken significantly (both in the US and Canada), yet the number of competent film/TV and video game actors who audition on union productions has EXPLODED.
Meanwhile, the non-union sector only keeps growing because voice is used everywhere, in every media. (Not to mention that union productions keep moving to the non-union sector.) And contrary to the union sector, not all voice actors are competent.
Union vs Non-Union: Final Thoughts
In the non-union sector, you’re also in total control of your branding, which can have a massive impact on your business.
So, if you want to work, you have better odds in the non-union sector. In the union sector, you risk becoming a professional auditioner. But in the end, your experience with clients is what will make you a pro.
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Get Creative, Get Critical and Get Paid Well Doing Voice Acting! My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice actress and an author.