Union is Bunion Without the “B”

by | Apr 1, 2009 | Op/Ed

At the risk of losing the few blog visitors I have, the temptation today is to write YET AGAIN (which would be part-3) on the Union v. Non-Union v. Fi-core discussion going on over at the Yahoo VO forum.  'S'been a while since I've seen such thoughtful, measured, civil, long posts on any one topic.

Obviously, this has touched a nerve.  So if you'd like to see a digest again of the latest, most erudite contributions to that dialogue, read "below the fold" here.  Man! There are some smart people in this world!  I have so much to learn.  I especially appreciate the cut-through-the-BS attitude of DB Cooper, Board Mistress of the VO-BB.

You may not care a hoot for my opinion, but, hey, this is my blog, and here is my 2-cents: 
Bunions are a pain in the foot, and Bunion is Union without the "B".  That's a long way to go to say I think unions as they stand today are about as useless as salmonella-laden pistachios.

I admit, I'm tainted.  My dad brought me up to hate unions.  He was a farmer. In adulthood, especially in the last few years, though, I've thoroughly, objectively examined whether joining SAG or AFTRA might not be a smart decision for my voiceover career.  The advantages are few…the negatives overwhelmingly nagging and severe.  Unions (again, AS THEY STAND TODAY) are antiquated relics of a paradigm that is looooong past.

Where is the drop-dead compelling reason to join?  I don't see it.  Nor have the unions made their case very well.


We are a talent agency based out of Portland, OR. We work on national projects almost daily.

Both union and non-union.

I don't need to comment on my personal feelings of frustration in regard to the unions, but what I felt compelled to say is that…We believe strongly at our agency that it is our responsibility to price our non-union work as closely as possible to union rates. They are the set standard. The only standard we have.

Does it always happen? No.

Do we walk away from lowball projects? Daily.

Within our responsibility, is pricing the projects according to their buy-lengths. As an agency rule, we generally shy away from full buyouts [with the exception of non-broadcast] for the reasons discussed in these latest group e-mails. Or we charge accordingly for them. If a client or buyer comes to us with a radio spot or a TV spot for sake of example, the two immediate pricing questions are 1] where is it running and 2] for how long? The project is then priced by a standard 13-week media cycle. Residuals

are built in. If they want it for a year, it's priced for a year. If  they want to add markets, the price increases. Want to add internet? Sure, for a fee. I'm not sure it's fair to say that most non-union work out there is priced as a buyout. At least not with talent agencies. I'm talking brick-n-mortar agencies,

not pay-for-plays.

If all independent talent and talent agencies who work non-union projects did this we wouldn't have the residuals problems. At least as much. Of course I'm speaking in general terms and there's that solidarity issue again.

We also do our very best, if given the choice, to make the project go union. Oftentimes producers will say they don't care, whatever works. When we have that kind of sway, we steer it union so that the talent can get their pension benefits and hopefully earn more to qualify for their health benefits. Our agency commissions are limited to 10% by the union. We charge 20% for non-union work. 10% isn't enough to keep our doors open. Most business models don't survive with a profit margin of 10% do they?

A couple of end notes – Many ideas have been given to the unions over the years by scores of us agents out here in the trenches. I for one would love to see an online auto-calculating contract with pull down

menus. Fill in the blanks and we can all see financially where we  stand without having to call a paymaster/signatory/union office. Print it and you've got your contract all done in order to submit. Clients and buyers need basic help to handle these things. They don't want to have to call the union and rates shouldn't be so complicated that they feel they need to. Believe me, the ratecards are very  complicated. It is not black and white. There's a whole lotta grey. If you've got a single spot and you know the exact markets or units, easy. But if you've got a project with multiple uses and something really not yet defined [new media] where do we turn? We guess. There, I said it. I wonder how much money it would take to develop some of the tools that would make the union easier to work with? Could development dollars come out of dues perhaps?

And, many many times producers will tell us it is NOT THE MONEY – it is the red tape. It is the pain. The contract confusion. Worrying they aren't doing something right in the union's eyes. Those are the reasons for not making a project union a goodly amount of the time.

Also in regards to the unions saying union talent are better performers, um? Really? Back in the day that may have been true, but I can join AFTRA tomorrow if I want by giving them my credit card # and I sure can't deliver copy excellently. I can be an extra on a SAG film a  couple times and be eligible for SAG membership. Does that make me a great or more superior voice talent than a non-union performer who's been working behind the mic for say, 5 years? Paying dues to join a union does
not a good talent make.

I believe in what unions stand for. I also believe in the right to work Ficore. I'd rather see a union member with Ficore status than a union member flying under the radar doing non-union work. It's a great conversation to have. Always controversial, but always thought-provoking.

I will continue to enjoy hearing both sides.


I usually lurk here, as I've learned better so as to just follow the hum. I do read some of the most amazing things from people in VO when I read the list. This will be long, then I'm gone.

Unions do not and will not "fight on your behalf". If you think they do, you must be living in 1929 in a sweatshop. I was and have been a member of the union under Capital Cities, and when it came time to
call up my records for national work in order to simply provide proof of performance for "another union's membership" they did not, would not, and in fact could not.

The unions were 7 years behind writing provisions for voiceover work for the digital age and era. That started the demise, as in the  recording industry's dropping the ball. When Internet database marketing became a viable reality, most in casting and representation at the time stated, "Oh we'll never do that. We have house reels and representation agreements for our stable as property, and putting it on that system will water down our property lines. Or they simply didn't understand that someone could really send a new thing called an Mp3 to someone else by email, and if that was the case, HOW could you keep your fence around that?! And so the unions never thought (because they don't do that, i.e. THINK) that you could still have lines of management drawn, while simply using the new technology as solely a new distribution system that fed current roles and players in agreements.

I sat with MaryAnn Conk, President of AFTRA, NY at one time when I was at Sirius – the Union had NO provision for satellite broadcasting, and the new network paid my mortgages (yes, plural, while I was broadcasting across the frickin' universe) and I said, "What MaryAnn… I'm not supposed to be a  pioneer on the new system and get into every car across America, to be followed by the nation's leading advertisers, when the Union has NO PROVISION or term
for Satellite? What do I do? Disjoin or fire the Union?" I'll make it very clear that my grandfather was an organizer for the first unions in the heart of New York City. He took ice picks in the back, while standing on soap boxes in efforts to "organize the workers" against the profiting perils of "then by comparison" large, sweat labor based companies that took advantage of "local labor" (read this in 2009 as India wising up where 13 cents on the dollar still buys what 13 cents on that dollar gets in China). When happening on the soils of Brooklyn, the East Side and the Bowery all the way down the Eastern seaboard to Norma Lynn's country in Texas (yes, the same wonderful country that brought you the boys who fostered the demise of an imploded economy as bottom of barrels drop out of markets; >ahem< fundamental Capitalism 101) the people who fought and were willing to take blades over the cause to not have sweat labor taken advantage of, made their fight and made their point.

These days, a union will not support you, or your Brand. Forget just for a moment about fighting for your "scale" and who sets it. When I hire a GC to hire a carpenter, and that carpenter shows up at the job site or front door with a plumbing kit or a screwdriver – I think I might have the wrong guy. The union doesn't have to tell that guy what tools to bring. Not that the union will ever tell you that you
are more clever, ready or more qualified than a guy who rants about his Neumann, his Sennheiser, his AKG or his Joe Meek onboard equalization.

Some of you stated we need to see the P & L's of the producers. As if 'those people', who are also facing a downscaling in the food chain from THEIR clients- are the evil guys taking your labor, holding back your income, or your bankable marketable equities or value in yourselves. Ah, poor suffering choice you made to be a talent. That's RIGHT! I FORGOT! Each and every one of you suffers the burden and misfortune or having to throw boxes off the end of a shipping dock for a living. Or you, the guy that drives that truck for 600 miles today to arrive at the truck stop to wait for your next piece of entertainment behind the food mart in the back.

Choose a union. Fine, if that's the way you want it or the way you've gone. FiCore? Fine. In the State of Arizona, which is a Right to Work state, and you are a craftsman in Voiceover, you get to work, pay
your bills, rent or mortgage and not be a union member. Florida, where I was the national voice of Nickelodeon BEFORE transferring up to New York City to continue there, is also a Right to Work state,
giving you the honor of earning a living without "having" to join a union. Now if you worked those  markets, and if you WERE union, what? You'd pass on taking the work, pay and credits because a Union
said, "Nope. You no go." Nobody ever seems to ask about the flip side question, which is when and how a union can IMPEDE your right to work.

I'd also like to get this straight, those of you in Washington DC who opt to work Union. You are telling the people who live and work in Arizona for example, that your skills are somehow BETTER, or you  make MORE money as union based, than your colleagues living in Arizona – and somehow that gets corroborated if maybe they made $ 100K per year living and working in AZ while you made perhaps just $ 65K last year working in your chosen wonderful Nation's capital city? Excuse me, really, but WHAT the HELL IS RELEVANCE here?  LA is Union; New York is both. We live in a multi-metro market world.
Who's offering the production and how do you best fit into it? Do you know when and how you should take something, or when you should simply pass?

Hugh Sumner, a lawyer for a few celebrity names in the past era of the Hollywood recording machine once told me – Lawyers are like the Oldest profession. They'll walk either side of the street for money.
Unions don't tell a group of anyone where or how to go and how much to take, when people who are in fact the commodity know how much they are worth. The idea is to set a bar, which has been done and you know. Raise the bar when you can, with your marketing, and don't go for less. Easy. The buzz now is Brand and Bands. Brand yourself. Banding together? Go find Facebook, Linked-in, Plaxo, VU, and
everywhere else now that you can go jump in each other's hip pockets and be Friends, if that's what you want to do. There's enough of that going on now. If talent is going to band together, there must be a bona-fide reason, other than to just say "Yippee, we're linked! We're
Friends!" I'll tell you right now – your being my pal doesn't tell me how much to make or take. If DC in LV gets hired for $500 or if BB in SD gets hired for $650, NO WHERE does it say that because we're "friends" that must mean that RK will take $500, $650, $300 or $12,500 for any job, just because my friend gets it? Or – better yet, that the Union will ever say to a production prospect "Nope – if you want xxx as your talent, their earned marketplace equitable value for your production is $ xyz." 

Develop your OWN business and YOUR OWN Marketable BRAND in yourselves. You do that by  understanding what it is that makes names that are worthwhile carrying in the last day's or today's era. We all know people who need to wake up and read the newspaper or Google every morning, just to see who they are that day; if you catch what I'm telling you. Understanding these areas of market  positioning with your own 'name value' and marketable place in the industries that you have made or make as your core, is the only determining factor on where you are in today's world, each and everyday, how you play it, and the price tag that you stick on your own head as the tomato
that's for sale.

Residuals. The union tells you you get residuals? If a deal is residuals based. If FiCore, and in doing Union work, you do not negate taking the union scale and points on residuals based production. When the union was established to create scale guidelines and residuals, it did establish a precedent. Being FiCore today does not negate your getting residuals, when you enter that production agreement that honors a residuals based plan. I can certainly testify that every talent that ever did a spot or a DRTV program or a motion picture agreement that incorporates a back end share, it ain't the Union telling them what the residual or back end percentage of product sales, gross or merchandising was or is a part of the talent's deal. Union doesn't have a clue.

Now we all know what the market place price is for going goods and services, and your OWN price for your own marketable brand value? No Union will determine that for you. "Eet's Not Their Job, Mon." If
you are fortunate enough, it's your agents'. But you know what? Many here will be very lucky to not see a situation where in some way or another, you'll have to spoon feed the agent or hone the market for
them as well, to get them to understand the difference between cattle call marketing deployment, numbers game volume sales over carriage of talent, lead generation from databases, or really saying to casting buyers or decision makers, "Nope, AB or CD or YZ is most bankable for you because of 'these reasons' to glean from that talent's 'quotient equity' into your production, media use and product  association.

Only you can do that, and until you are getting it, broadcasting it, marketing it and positioning others to also get it and "fight for it" – ain't no union gonna do it for you. As the song goes: "Aint nobody's bizness but yo own." And in today's world, quoting a great mentor who I grew up watching on Kid's TV in the good ol' days, everyone will take the same attitude which is "I don't give a sh*t." This, from the man who as a Doctor of Science, invented for mankind a viable first prototype for the artificial human heart. He never saw himself as "sweat labor" either.

FiCore or not. It doesn't matter.

Now sit down, stand up, shut up and talk as you go back to speaking for a living. I'm back to lurking.


Here's my idea: with the totally freelance VO stuff, make a
W-9/contractor mechanism, that allows for a talent to inform the union
of work in the pipeline, show the emails or faxes from the party that
requests the work, have a simple work-for-hire contract that specifies
the work that's being requested and where it will be used, the price
agreed upon and date of service.
The talent can have the audio guy
or producer or whoever send the check to the union office where they
can do their whatever-the- hell
it is they do, and they can send the check on to the talent with a bill
stating what the H&R contribution and dues would be.
However, since it's technically illegal at the moment for a talent to
contribute directly to their own H&R fund, perhaps the union will
have to collect the funds in escrow on behalf of the actor and then
send on the net. In that case, the producer/audio guy would make the
check out to "AFTRA for Cindy Lou Actor" , or whatever will legally
work. Then, AFTRA's minions can send the money to the fund and tender
the rest to the talent.



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