The Union

Are you curious about the union? This blog is a continuation of my previous entry on how you get into the Motion Picture Editors Guild.  I thought it would be a good idea to provide a little insight into getting into the union.  What I didn’t realize is that it would devolve into an entire diatribe about the state of the Editors Guild in the larger Hollywood perspective.  So I packed my first entry with information, and saved the rant for here. I guess I figured that it would be a good idea to keep my thoughts organized, no?

These days, so much editing work in Hollywood is non-union. You can find nearly any type of production being done without the protections of the Editors Guild. But why is this, you ask? This is due cheifly to the introduction of inexpensive editing systems in the last ten years. Experience aside, one once needed access to extremely pricey equipment to be able to hone one’s skills and practice as an editor. This provided an extra barrier to entry for anyone trying to get into the business. With the introduction of Avid and Lightworks and then Final Cut Pro, it has become easy for any person with about $5000 to be able to create a broadcast-capable editing system. Now, all people need are talent, skill, and connections. (He says, as if it was nothing.)  That has made it easy for young kids in high school and college (I’m speaking about yours truly and many following after me) to learn the skill of editing quite easily.

This situation has created a problem for the union because, given its current setup, its members maintain no monopoly on any tangible skill anymore. Unlike the other Hollywood unions such as SAG or the DGA, the Editors Guild places no requirement on its members to only work on union productions. In order to maintain your benefits, a union member must work 300 hours every six months.  (Here is a link explaining the requirements.)  This is a double-edged sword, because it allows union members to take advantage of all the non-union work but sometimes have to choose less union work over more non-union work.  You can be a member in good standing but not be given benefits based on the fact that you have not enough hours in your given six-month window.  Now, you can “bank” hours, which means that you can keep some of your hours if you work more than the 300, but it’s not that simple because the bank is limited to 450 hours, meaning that you can really only keep your benefits for another six months without a union gig of at least 3-4 weeks.  Not as easy as it seems, is it?

When it comes to getting non-union work, I have seen more better-paying jobs as an assistant editor there than I have working union.  Typically, I do independently-financed union features, and that work typically comes with depressed budgets and depressed rates.  Granted, at least these productions are union projects, where I can work for a depressed rate but still get my union hours, but the grass is not necessarily greener on the union side.  Other work, like reality TV and award shows, can be well-compensating but not pay into your benefits at all.  And thus, I am constantly left with a dilemma.  Recently, I turned down a large amount of non-union work for a smaller amount of union work, because its cheaper in the long run to not pay for my own individual health insurance.  But its only getting harder to make those choices.  Starting in August 2011, a union member must work 400 hours to maintain benefits!

In today’s post-production reality, it does make sense how the union has positioned itself.  Their allowance for union members to work non-union without penalty has allowed me to keep working union but not lose out on all my previous connections.  This is good.  However, this has only contributed to the union’s increasing irrelevance in this town.  Unless the project is a high-profile film or scripted television show, it is almost certainly non-union.  American Idol, the biggest show on TV right now, is non-union.  The biggest producers of reality television right now are non-union.  Many of the biggest post-production houses in Los Angeles are non-union.  And union people will take those jobs because they pay.  I am no fan of this.  Let it be said, though, that all I am trying to do is make clear the realities to people who are looking at joining the union.  I don’t know how to fix this.  I just know I wish I could keep my benefits and be able to pay my bills.  Sometimes I wonder if that will ever come to pass.

An important question I often get is “how do I join the union?” This question comes from many people I meet, from established editors to the young people just starting out in the Hollywood. The catch is that the answer isn’t at all that simple. The question should be: “should I join the union?” Putting it simply, if you’re asking that question, the answer is not quite yet. But that’s just the beginning of the story.

The people who should “join the union” are people who have been offered a position on a union show and are either rostered or have some other loophole to exploit.  Since the latter is a longshot, your best bet to joining the union is to roster. But let’s slow down a minute and talk about why you would want to join the union. The Motion Picture Editors Guild is a valuable organization of many of the most talented post-production artists in Hollywood. It provides great benefits: health insurance, a pension plan, protection from overwork/underpay, free screenings and seminars, and finally great discounts for things like software and cellphone plans. (For a complete list, check out this link.) But with every benefit, there is a downside. But that’s another rant.

So what do you need to join the union?  Well, the answer is you need to work non-union.  You need to work, be paid, and be credited as an editor (or whatever editing title you join the union as, i.e. Assistant Editor, etc.)  You can make below union scale.  You can work inconsistently.  All you need to have is the ability to demonstrate that you have 175 days of non-union work experience in the three years prior to applying.  If you’re joining as an Assistant or something else, the day requirement will be even less! Now, let’s say you’ve met these requirements.  What should you do?  Well, you should roster.  What is rostering?  Rostering is a list of membership-eligible people who the union says are qualified for work, but haven’t gotten their first union job yet.  It’s a sneaky way to keep you on their radar and to keep you from lying when you say “yes” if someone asks about your union status.  Of course, you don’t get anything tangable for rostering besides the piece of mind, but the advantage this provides is it allows a potential union employer to judge your resume without worrying about whether you’re in the union or not.  For information about what to do once you’re at this stage, click over to this link at the union’s website.

Now, if you’ve made it this far, you must be asking yourself “how do I get a union job?”  Honestly, that’s the hard part.  Meeting people who could potentially hire you on union productions is entirely based on who you know.  Not being able to help anyone with that, I’ll address the circumstances under which you should jump from rostering to actually becoming a full member: don’t do it unless you are offered a job for more than a few months. The initiation fees are hundreds of dollars, and in order to get any of the health benefits, you need to work an initial 600 hours to qualify, so don’t do it if you won’t be working enough to justify it.  You should be very confident that you’ll be working for months, not weeks, and if you’re not making enough, keep your money and wait.  I personally waited two years between rostering and joining.

And what is it like on the inside?  Well, it’s kind of a double-edged sword.  I’ll save you the rant for Part 2 (forthcoming) but it certainly can be awesome.  The hardest part is to keep working union shows enough to maintain your benefits.  But if you can do that, it’s a great thing to have.  My only question is whether its sustainable in its current model.  But again, I’ll save that for Part 2.

For more information, leave a comment here or head on over to the Guild’s website.  Check back for my next entry in the saga of the Editor’s Guild…