The rule is, a non-union actor is allowed to do non-union projects and a union actor is not. Once an actor joins the union, they are only allowed to work on union projects. There’s sort of a loophole there now because of Fi-Core, but that’s another discussion for another day.
So, how does an actor become union? Well, there are a few options, but one way to get into the union is for a union project to “Taft-Hartley” you. Yes, I did just use that as a verb. If you are so amazing as an actor that the producers of a union project want you, but you’re non-union, they’ll kind of force you in. It’s a bit of paperwork on their side, but basically their decision to hire a non-union actor as opposed to a union actor must be justified somehow and then said actor is considered SAG eligible. The actor is then allowed to do union and non-union work. Actors that are SAG eligible are sometimes said to be in the sweet spot because for a time they can to do both types of projects. After 30 days of being SAG eligible, the actor is considered a must-join and will have to join the union if they want to do another union project. They can continue to work on non-union jobs for as long as they are not part of the union. Union actors doing non-union work is a major no-no and can actually get you expelled from SAG-AFTRA.
Aside from working as a principal actor on a union project, you can do some background acting to get a Taft-Hartley. If you work as an extra on a union project, you might be able to get a Taft-Hartley voucher. After collecting three of these vouchers, you will be considered SAG eligible. The same rules apply as with principal actors where you have 30 days until you become a must-join. Obviously, this takes a bit longer to do as you will have to work on three projects instead of one, but both have the same results.
Either way, it’s not really advised that brand new actors immediately try to join the union. They’ll end up having to pay a pretty hefty amount in dues every year, but might not have the credits to get good union work. By staying SAG eligible for a while, they’ll have more options, but won’t be closed off entirely to big union roles. See? Sweet spot.
As for me, I just received my first Taft-Hartley for working background on a union project. Woohoo! Slowly, but surely, y’all! Slowly, but surely!
If you want to find out more info about the Taft-Hartley Act and how to join SAG-AFTRA, check out their website here.