If you want to hire union talent or labor onto your next production, you’re going to need to become a union signatory to the appropriate contract.
But what is a union signatory anyway? Why does it sound so official?
(It isn’t scary, is it?)
Find out in this post, as we explore the magic of union signatories in the film industry and tell you everything you need to know to achieve union signatory status for yourself.
First things first…
The term “signatory” refers broadly to any individual, company, or other entity that has signed a written agreement and is, therefore, subject to its contents and restrictions.
That sounds complicated. Let me rephrase. What is a signatory in simple terms?
It’s someone- basically anyone- who signs a contract. It’s what happens when a person takes a pen, rubs it against some paper, and in so doing agrees to follow the paper’s orders.
Think, for instance, of Michael Jordan joining up with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, George Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney in 2012, Woodrow Wilson approving the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, or you agreeing to accept those internet cookies like five minutes ago.
What do all of these towering historical figures have in common?
That’s right. Each and every one of them is technically a signatory.
But there is one catch worth keeping in mind.
Signatories aren’t just entities who have signed agreements.
Signatories are entities who have legally signed agreements.
It may sound silly, but it’s incredibly important for everyone involved that someone potentially signing a contract has the legal capacity to sign that contract in the first place. If one of a contract’s signatories signs the document as a minor, while they’re under duress, under the misrepresentation of facts, or while otherwise considered without sufficient capacity to sign, the contract will be impossible to enforce. And what is a signatory’s point if the agreement is unenforceable?
Now that we’ve answered “What is a signatory,” let’s narrow our focus a bit.
Let’s talk about union signatories.
A union signatory is an individual, company, or other entity that has agreed to comply with the union guidelines outlined within a specific signatory union agreement.
In simple terms, a union signatory is anyone who legally binds themselves to following a union’s rules.
Your production will have to follow the regulations set forth by each union with which you become signatory, which could mean following several different sets of rules at the exact same time.
Fortunately, this is easier in practice than it probably sounds in theory.
The basis for the signatory-union relationship is the signatory union agreement or union contract. Signatories must follow the guidelines detailed by the specific signatory union agreement that they enter at the time of signing and may have to enter into agreements with multiple unions before beginning production.
The good news is that, at least in broad strokes, most signatory union agreements cover similar ground.
Obviously, your production’s SAG contract has a very different set of specific concerns than its IATSE contract (because they’re dealing with fundamentally different kinds of labor), but both contracts exist to create the same basic protections for their respective union members.
Regardless of their union of origin, signatory union agreements tend to focus on ensuring fair pay, working conditions, and working processes.
For that reason, signatories who abide by the guidelines of one major union contract will most likely experience few or no problems in abiding with the guidelines set forth by any other union contracts they may have to enter for their shoot.
In other words, dealing with multiple unions doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, it should be relatively easy, so long as your production keeps its ducks in a row.
But what’s the bad news?
The bad news is that signatories dealing with multiple unions are still dealing with multiple unions. While their contracts may mostly overlap, they are still separate contracts that stipulate separate regulations, and your production will need to pay attention to each of them to ensure it avoids a union grievance.
Most unions share a common list of well-established union holidays, but if IATSE decides to go rogue and officially celebrate International Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19, just for reference), you’re going to have to be aware of it and give IATSE members on your crew a day off.
If you don’t, IATSE would have every right to make you or your production company walk the plank. (That’s ITLAPD-speak for going on strike, which you do not want.)
The key to avoiding such grievances is simple due diligence.
Of course, doing your due diligence becomes a heck of a lot of easier when you work with Wrapbook.
Wrapbook comes equipped with features designed to give producers peace of mind. From accurate tax filings to automatic calculations of L.A. IATSE and Teamster timecards, Wrapbook can help keep you compliant across payroll and production insurance regulations.
Now, before we move on to the process of becoming a union signatory, let’s take a quick detour to discuss becoming a union signatory contractor.
Union signatory contractors are independent contractors who have officially agreed to run their business in accordance with union guidelines.
Critically, union signatory contractors are NOT the same thing as signatory producers or signatory production companies. They are similar in that they’ve entered into an agreement with a union, but their relationship with the union is fundamentally different.
Signatories in the film industry, as we’ve described them above, agree to follow a union’s rules in how they conduct the business of employing union members on a production.
Union signatory contractors, on the other hand, agree to follow a union’s rules in how they conduct the business of employing themselves.
To illustrate, let’s consider our two favorite plumbers: Mario and Luigi.
Because of its over-complicated and largely unmapped sewage system, there’s no shortage of plumbing gigs in the Mushroom Kingdom. The clients, however, are surprisingly limited in number.
Without union guidelines, Mario and Luigi- equally talented but separate contractors- are forced to compete for these clients on price.
And we all know what that means, right?
As time goes by, the two bros undercut one another, working for progressively cheaper and cheaper rates until their respective incomes are barely livable. To make ends meet, Luigi is forced to work nights as a janitor, while Mario goes on yet another spree of reptile home invasions.
Fewer dinosaurs are generally involved, but the same thing can happen amongst professional craftspeople in real life, which is why unions often step in to offer protection.
To prevent the fireball breath of this reality from scorching the incomes of thousands of independent plumbers, electricians, and similar contractors, local unions open their doors to contractors through the “union signatory contractor” classification.
Union signatory contractors agree to follow certain union guidelines in an effort to protect their industry as a whole.
In other words, how does a contractor join a union without technically joining the union? They sign a union agreement. They become a union signatory contractor.
Contractor signatories are rare in the film industry, but their existence is worth being aware of due to the precedence set by other fields.
If you’re trying to figure out how to become a union signatory contractor yourself, seek the direct advice of the local union appropriate to your profession.
To become a union signatory, you have to sign a union agreement. To sign a union agreement, you have to enter into direct negotiation with the union.
Beyond those basics, the exact process of becoming a signatory producer or production company will vary from union to union, but there are some general rules you can follow to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
Here are five essential tips for successfully becoming a union signatory:
Every union has its own agreement or set of agreements, and signatories should make an effort to be aware of their contents in advance of starting the signatory process.
This is for your benefit, as well as the union’s.
Doing the right research about a union agreement early on will help your production better navigate its union relationship from the very beginning. You’ll know what contract is right for you, whether you need a union contract at all, what questions to ask, and how to make the relationship work to your production’s advantage.
Aside from doing your homework, the first real step in becoming a union signatory is reaching out directly to the union itself. You’ll initiate the process with a union representative.
It may sound simple, but it’s imperative that potential signatories make first contact with the union to ensure that the signatory process proceeds smoothly. It establishes a professional relationship and, if you’ve done your research, affords you the opportunity to get ahead of the game by providing necessary materials and information upfront.
More than that, however, making first contact enables you and your production to avoid a potentially disastrous situation.
The last thing you want is a union representative making contact on their own later on because someone has reported your production for a grievance.
Don’t wait until you’re a week away from starting principal photography to reach out to a union.
Even at a rushed pace, potential signatories would be hard-pressed to complete the signatory process within that short an amount of time and, beyond that, doing so will only serve to begin your relationship with the union on the wrong foot.
Instead, be respectful of your union representative's time and reach out 4-6 weeks before production begins. That will allow you plenty of time to correct mistakes and make adjustments without sacrificing a positive relationship with the union.
If it’s not already clear, the most important element of the union signatory process is your relationship with the union and its representatives.
Union representatives have the power to make or break your production. You have to work with them, hand-in-hand, to become approved as a signatory to a union contract.
For that distinct reason, potential union signatories should seek to preserve a positive relationship with union representatives at every turn.
And if working with a union representative seems frustrating from time to time, try not to fret. Remember that they’re just attempting to do their job, exactly like you.
Finally, as is the case when entering any contract, seeking legal counsel is always recommended.
In this case, if signatories can afford it, they would be wise to see what an entertainment lawyer thinks about the negotiation of their specific union contracts as soon as possible.
The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is arguably the most famous union in Hollywood history.
SAG signatories have access to some of the brightest performing talents in the world under a variety of different contracts that vary according to size and type of production.
SAG hosts plenty of contract-specific guides to the signatory process right on their website. For further information, be sure to check out the resources available at SAG-AFTRA Production Center.
Becoming a union signatory is a critical step in the production process. It helps ensure the health and safety of laborers in the film industry and, therefore, helps ensure the health and safety of the film industry as a whole.
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