A guide to Labor Unions in America

©Julia Noni

©Julia Noni

As a French immigrant, understanding how Unions work in the US was like discovering a whole new world. I’m still not quite sure to really understand all the subtleties so I might write another article about it later but since some friends in Europe asked me about it, here some basics about Unions in America.

First, what’s a Union ?

A labor or trade union is an organization of workers dedicated to protecting members' interests and improving wages, hours and working conditions for all. Unions exist for every kind of professions in the US from mechanics to police officers and costume designers !

Unions in the film and theater industries can be broken down into two groups : Above the Line (individuals involved with creative side: actors, producers, directors, designers) and Below the Line (individuals who perform the physical production of a given film including editing).

When I started to work at the Metropolitan Opera in the costume department I had to become part of the Union called I.A.T.S.E Local 764 which represents Below the Line theatrical costume and wardrobe people. The Union gets a percentage of my weekly paychecks (in the US we get paid every weeks) and I also had to pay a registration fee. Although I didn’t get to chose, being part of a Union protects my rate and work conditions (overtime compensations, holidays, sick days, health care…).

Now if I wanted to work as a costume supervisor or designer on a Union project I would have to apply to a different Union which would be an Above the Line Union (with a significant registration fee - around $3000). Also I heard some Unions are specific to a certain area. For example if you are a Union stunt in NYC, you would need to be part of a different Union to work in LA.

Of course if you want to work as a costumer in the US you don’t have to be part of a Union. I have worked on some non-Union projects like indie films for example. The main difference is that non-Union projects don’t guarantee the same rate and work conditions than a Union project.

Right now I’m still an applicant to the Local 764 because I haven’t payed all the fees so I don’t have the right to vote for strikes or get a health care yet.

Culturally speaking I was a bit surprised to have to pay so much money to be guaranteed to have decent work conditions but I’m now very grateful to realize how much power Unions have in the US. For example a Union production can’t hire a free intern and our work hours are very well monitored so every overtime counts.

I have been living in NYC for 6 months now working mainly in the theater world and I can’t wait to learn more and share my experience here. Feel free to post a comment if you have questions or topic ideas !