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How to Join a Union

When I got back to Los Angeles, my first order of business was to join the camera union, Local 600. When you’re getting started in your career, joining an IATSE union needs to be a top priority. Membership in one of the various film unions is a prerequisite for working on any large scale project. If a project is produced in cooperation with IATSE, the producers are not allowed to hire non-union crewmembers. Think of any movie you’ve ever seen in a theater. There’s almost a one-hundred percent chance the movie you have in your mind is an IATSE feature.

There are a lot of benefits to being in a union. Besides giving you the ability to work on bigger projects, IATSE unions provide a myriad of other services. They offer health insurance, pensions, education, mentorship programs and a wide network of skilled film professionals. Additionally, unions set minimum rates on projects, so you’ll likely be making more money than you would on a non-union job. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general rule.

When you’re looking into joining a union, the first item on your to-do list will be finding out the membership rules. You’ll have to meet certain requirements in order to obtain union membership. In most cases, you’ll need to be able to prove that you worked a certain number of days on union shows. I can already see the circular logic spinning in your head: in order to join a union, you need to work on union shows, but in order to work on union shows, you need to be a part of a union. Fortunately, union officials often issue what’s called a waiver. A waiver is basically the union’s way of granting a non-member permission to work on an IATSE affiliated show. If you have someone willing to hire you on a union show, call your union rep and explain your situation. Tell them that you’re in the process of getting your union days, and ask them for a waiver to work on the show. Usually they’ll be happy to issue you one. If you really want to stack the deck in your favor, drop by the union office and ask to speak to a business representative. Introduce yourself, tell them you’re looking to join the union, and ask for any advice they may have. Learn a bit about their story. When you call them later asking for a waiver, they’ll remember you and be more willing to help you.

My plan, upon getting back to Los Angeles, was to join the camera union as a camera loader. The camera loader position gets its name because the loader, traditionally, is the person who loads rolls of film into camera magazines. In the digital age, the loader is more of card downloader position.

I was so excited by the prospect of becoming a camera loader. The cinematographer from my Baby Driver unit had mentioned he wanted to get me in the union as a loader and hire me on his next project, so I felt like I was carrying a lot of momentum toward getting the job. I also didn’t have any union days toward joining, a fact the business reps at Local 600 made abundantly clear to me when I dropped by to say hi. They weren’t going to let me join with no union days. Compounding the difficulty of my situation was the fact that Duane, the cinematographer I wanted to work for, said his next project was going to be back in Atlanta. He probably wouldn’t be able to take me out as a loader, so I was stuck back at square one.

Justin, the tattooed camera assistant, and I talked about my predicament during our prep at Panavision. He listened patiently as told him how I wanted to join the union as a loader and wouldn’t settle for any other position. He said he understood but also told me how difficult getting a loader position would be without having all my union days. He told me about a lower union position, digital utility, which allowed me to pay an entrance fee and join the union. When I expressed doubt about joining in a lower position, Justin gave me a fantastic piece of advice: “Just get on set.”

Getting on set is the most important aspect of working in the film industry. Set is where you make both your money and your connections. I was being stupid by holding out for a loader position that may or may not have ever come. I had the opportunity to start working on union sets as a utility. I needed to take advantage of that opportunity. Justin had been a utility a few years prior and now he was a camera assistant on a gigantic movie! In the beginning of your career, take every opportunity move up positions, no matter how small the promotion. There’s no way to know where each new opportunity leads but, if you’re moving forward, you’re moving in the right direction.

The Transformers prep ended a few days later. I said goodbye to Justin and the rest of the camera team headed to Michigan and wished them well. Later that week, I returned to the Local 600 office and joined the union as a digital utility.

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