Since writing this post, SAG and AFTRA have merged into SAG-AFTRA. It’s one union…
Q: [Our son] has been doing some work as an extra and we have been asked if we are members of SAG of AFTRA. Do you recommend one and do you need to be a member of both to be able to work on a SAG project or AFTRA?
A: To simplify as best I can: if a production is signed under a union agreement, you need to be part of the union to work on that production.
So, being in either union is good. Being in both brings more opportunities. (There are other unions too, most notably Equity for stage performers.)
Certainly, if you are planning on having a career as a professional actor, you must plan on being a member of the unions.
However, once you are in a union, you don’t necessarily have the same opportunity to do non-union work.
This comes into play when, for example, a small production company wants to cast you in a non-union project. Getting a union member in the project can be an obstacle for them…and you want the experience and the footage that you would get from doing it.
A great position for an actor to be in is that you are eligible for unions, and that you join when you get a job that requires it.
Many times, children will get cast in union productions and invited into the union as a result. No one is born with a union card, so they have to get the talent from somewhere.
There really is no substitute for research: the industry is undergoing changes all the time, and the decision to join a union is unique for each individual at the current point of their career. This is especially true of children, who may have unique opportunities because of their youth, their proximity to professional work (near or far), and the availability of their family to get them to auditions and jobs.
To kick off your research.
SAG is harder to get into; you need to be invited. The current initiation fee is $2277 + the first semi-annual dues. You can find out much more than I can type at their website, sag.org. SAG does some TV, but covers mostly movies and commercials.
AFTRA is a union anyone can join at anytime. You just have to pay: currently $1667, and your dues every 6 months. You can look up more info at aftra.org. AFTRA does a lot of TV now, much more than they used to.
The FAQ section at both websites are excellent resources.
Also, there are talks of the two unions merging. Again, things can always change, so take responsibility for your research.