It may not come as a shock to hear there's a lot of non-union voice work going on these days. Fact is, a lot of SAG-AFTRA members are experiencing no less than a sea change when it comes to getting auditions and making a living as a working actor. But before I add my opinion to the union vs non union debate, I owe you some background.
I grew up in Oklahoma the third generation of solidly organized-labor, Kennedy democrats. You can see the photo of my father's Plasterer's Union Dues Book as proof. Dad's union wasn't too smart when it came to dealing with change. Around the time precast drywall began replacing hand-made plaster walls in the early '70s, they went on strike. It lasted long enough for dad to begin taking small non-union jobs just to put food on the table. Perhaps our electricity being turned off was enough of a factor to go independent or perhaps he was just tired of sitting around while his family's bills piled higher and higher. Finally though, the plasterers went back to work. But not nearly as many as before. And the small increase they received never made up for the months of lost wages. This event has always stayed with me. I view it as an example of organized labor failing to recognize a changing world. Thinking like that is what led to the now infamous SAG and AFTRA strike of 2000. A strike that showed our employers they could indeed succeed without the working actor. If it were not for the support of celebrities back then, there would be even fewer SAG-AFTRA jobs today. But I digress...
Back then as now, here's the simple argument: Union members deliver a higher quality performance than non union. Or to quote David Ogilvy, "Pay peanuts and you get monkeys".
So many commercial voice actors are going Fi-Core that other than celebrity voices, clients can find quality non-union talent out there. Many agents are representing non-union talent as well. Home studios have allowed smaller clients the option of receiving finished on-air quality tracks without the expense of a studio, engineer, producer or creative team. For just a few hundred dollars in equipment, anyone can set up quality audition space just about anywhere. As good as professional studio audio? Nope. Not in my opinion. Good enough? Seems more people think so. (By the way, if you are an actor considering the Fi-Core option, please realize that this single choice will follow you the rest of your career. Want to work non-union? Fine. Your life, your choice. Want to work union jobs and non-union jobs and by doing so violate Global Rule One? That makes you a scab in my book. And you dollar for a holler guys doing stuff for $50 bucks? Ahhh... how's that working for ya?)
Another reason non union work has increased is due to the effort required to hire union talent. The advertising industry is a shadow of it's former self. Casting departments and production departments are largely freelance (if they exist at all). Producers are handling more jobs and have fewer support staff. The "headache" of dealing with SAG-AFTRA is too much for some. And forget about agency signatory status. With non-signatory digital arms and alliances, any client/agency can shoot or record non-union with little fear of reprisal.
So what is the union to do?
We can't strike. Local and regional clients will simply ignore us.
We can't appeal to young actors to "join for a living wage and health coverage!" Young people don't care and are not responding to that pitch which we've been droning on about for years anyway.
How about we make it easier?
Simplify, simplify, simplify the hiring process. Make it easy. Start with experiments in regional markets. Buyout at a fair rate. Not in perpetuity, but a year or two. No conflict on cable or radio so that's not an issue, anyway. Not talking about networks. We can go there another time.
It will cost us. No doubt it will. If your customers keep saying "you charge too much" then you either lower your prices or you lose customers. Frankly, I'd rather work a union job being paid less than not work at all. And please fellow union members read this next bit carefully... I am not advocating food-stamp wages. Quality voices deserve appropriate compensation. But clearly the industry has changed it's idea of what a quality voice is worth. When the market feels we are paid too much for what we offer and the union process is too difficult, then we make an adjustment in our pay and how we are paid.
If we do not solve the growing problem on non-union work, the union will go away. Working actors will vanish. SAG-AFTRA will become a small collection of celebrities and high-profile broadcasters. Those of us on the fringe, the journeymen, the commercial actors, the majority will slowly age out. Or worse. Some of us will resort to independent work. Not because we want to. But because we need to eat.
When I was first signed by ICM in 1992, there were 30 other male voice actors on the New York CD. Today, my current agents represents over 200 male voice actors here in NYC. More in LA and in secondary markets. The competition within our own ranks is healthy and good for clients and the union. It means clients absolutely can find the union voice that best gets their brand and message across to their customers.
But then, you know what that say about supply and demand, don't you?