Performers Unions: Being Protected, Part 2
By Jill Wolins
At some point of a dancer’s professional career, the big questions arise. Do I need to join a performers’ union? Why would I? Why would I not join? What are the benefits? Is it better to remain a non-union dancer? All dancers form their own opinions regarding unions on their own time, as they cultivate their professional careers. There is no right or wrong answer to these questions; the answer is personal, as different dancers have individual goals and priorities.
Why Join a Union?
It is a good idea to get informed before setting goals and making career decisions. Let’s explore!
Performers’ unions regulate working conditions to make them suitable and specific for the needs of dancers. They regulate hours worked and breaks, and monitor safety conditions. An example of a specialty contract would be the AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists) contract for Radio City Rockettes. This collective bargaining agreement (CBA) states that dancers can only wear heels (character dance shoes with heels) for a total of three hours per rehearsal day. If the work day is divided into four segments, each 1 1/2 hours long, the ladies can only wear heels for two rehearsal segments.
Health coverage is among the top reasons to join a union. Benefit determination is different for each union. For some unions, benefits are based on monies earned, and for others, it is based on the numbers of weeks worked. Some performers have to work to accumulate the designated number of work weeks before receiving benefits. Others, like The Rockettes, receive one full year of health coverage starting the first day of rehearsal.
Unions usually offer some type Credit Union and savings plan. Financial security and financial planning are almost never discussed while exploring a career in dance. Union members are given the option to start a 401k plan and can contribute a portion of each paycheck. The Credit Unions also offer connections for discounted home and car insurance plans.
Tuition Assistance Plans
Unions and union jobs usually offer services including funds and counseling for dancers transitioning into alternative career fields. Web sites also provide links to these members’ services.
What Kind of Jobs Can Union Dancers Take Outside of the Union?
It is a myth that union dancers can not do any other work that is non-union. Union performers can not work any job that is in the field that their union represents. For example, a member of Actors’ Equity Association can not perform or work in any other stage shows that are scripted. This is because Equity protects members of the live, scripted theater. Dancers are free to do non-scripted industrials and corporate events. They are free to dance and work in union or non-union television shows and movies. If a dancers decide to do a non-union tour of a scripted musical because they think it is the only chance they will have at doing this dream show, and they are caught, their union memberships will be terminated for life. Another example includes SAG/AFTRA (Screen Actor’s Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) members. Once a dancer becomes a member of that union, they can not be cast in non-union commercials of any kind.
Are Unions Necessary? Is it Better to be a Union Dancer?
Some people think “yes,” some people think “no.” The biggest deciding factors for dancers to join a union usually have to do with gaining the opportunity to receive health benefits and better pay in general. As an adult thinking about the future and accepting that there is little job security in show biz, working non-union may not be an option. After accumulating a good amount of professional experience and enough credits on their resumé, people sometimes find it unjust that some dancers would work non-union, especially under certain circumstances. If a Broadway-style show goes on tour as a non-union production, and the Broadway cast made or currently makes twice the amount as the touring cast, many performers balk. On the flip side, if it is difficult to get a union card and contract, and there seem to be more non-union productions and auditions, so some performers prefer to remain non-union. If a non-union dancer has waited tables while auditioning for union jobs for two years, they may just want to, regardless of the pay, practice their craft. Dancers usually just want to work and be on stage or in front of the camera.
A dancer wants to dance. Because of the ebb and flow of the economy, there are sometimes many more non-union jobs available to performers.
Dancers new to the business, regardless of their thoughts of busting into the business as a Broadway or company feature, most often have to “pay their dues” and gain professional experience. Many young dancers choose to work non-union, especially at first, to build their resumé and meet people in their industry.