There are 3 main actors unions. These are the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and Actors Equity Association (AEA or Equity). In NYC there is all kinds of work you can book. Some of it will be listed as non-union and some of it as union. Joining the unions is pretty important if you plan on making the decision to become a professional (i.e “paid”) actor. They can make you look more respectable on paper – I have heard many different agents and casting directors say that if an actors resume is light on the training they will overlook it if they are represented by a union – especially SAG and Equity (AEA). Less so with AFTRA – I will explain in a sec. The unions are also there to help actors get paid appropriately and in some cases, if you earn well, the unions will enable you to get health insurance.
However, joining the unions can be tricky. To join a union, you have to book a union job. This is the rub (apologies for the lame thespian reference.. ). In general, it is pretty hard to be seen (audition for) a union job unless you are a.) union, or b.)represented or freelancing with a union agent or c.)friends with a union casting director, ad agency, production company, etc.
I will write a chapter on “getting an agent” later on. Ideally though, you will want your agent to start sending you out on those union jobs and book one! Easier said than done. Here are some break downs of the unions and how to join, etc.