“Hollywood” is a union town. Even the “Hollywood” that exists in the UK, Italy and Canada! There are unions for almost all workers on a set and in the theatre, including the director, writers, crew, actors and even casting directors. Most of these organizations are named “guilds” because they don’t find work for their members as many unions do, but for all intents and purposes, they are a union. In the United States, most of the actors unions below are members of the AFL-CIO, as are the unions representing teachers, police and factory workers. Because of this association with the AFL-CIO, union members may be eligible for additional benefits, such as Union Plus college scholarships, auto loans and more.
Children represent a unique population. Acting is the only profession where children are union members, and many professional children are members of at least two unions. Unions provide important protections to child actors. They are known for “collective bargaining” which means that actors negotiate with producers as a group to establish minimum wages, health insurance, and retirement pensions. For children specifically, they regulate work hours, provide for on-set safety, require academic education on set, among other things.
In the US, unionism is governed by state law. There are “union states” which include the entertainment hubs of New York and California, and there are “right to work states”. In union states, workers are forced to pay the union dues in order to continue to work, either through membership or as a dues paying non-member (aka Financial Core). In “right-to-work” states, such as Georgia and Florida, actors may choose to join the union, but can choose not to—they can work union and non-union jobs without ever joining as long as they stay within that state. You can read more about this here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-to-work_law
Despite the many benefits, most parents will find that joining a union is a crossroads of sorts. It is the point when an amateur actor becomes a professional. There are many considerations including large initiation dues and the banning of non-union work from that point forward. We suggest you make a knowledgeable, well-timed decision. Join when your child is sure they want to make that commitment to a professional career. Joining too soon can drastically slow a child’s career.
Below is a list of unions for performers in the United States, including a PDF specific to children. Further down the page, you will find non-profit organizations (often related to a union) that provide additional services to young performers. Note that similar unions exist in other countries (British Equity, New Zealand Equity, for example) and they are members of the International Federation of Actors. If you are working abroad, you will want to be sure to check the union status of your project before agreeing to work: make sure the project is either a SAG signatory or signed with another member of the FIA. We highly discourage children from working abroad in non-union projects due to the high risk of human trafficking.