What’s Fi-Core? The Alternative to Being a Card-Carrying SAG-AFTRA Member

For many up-and-coming actors, joining SAG-AFTRA means better pay, health care, and access to higher-profile productions. Membership in the acting guild is more or less a professional necessity for most actors trying to build careers in Hollywood. However, there is an alternative path for those looking to avoid the restrictions that accompany the benefits of union membership. The largely unspoken alternate option “Fi-Core,” short for Financial Core, could serve performers looking to maximize their potential for work, save money on initiation fees, and insure themselves and their families without fully committing to the guild.

The alternative exists because of a 1963 Supreme Court ruling which allowed nonunion auto workers to access perks from union advancements, so long as they paid fees for the “core benefits” they received from General Motors. This term established a new category of employees, less governed by strict labor-union policies and more free to hover between self-selection and group representation.

a still from barbie

Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza

SAG representatives did not respond to IndieWire’s requests for comment on this story.

What is Fi-Core and what are the pros and cons?

A Fi-Core employee is someone who partially commits to joining a union, in this case SAG-AFTRA, trading certain perks and benefits for their freedom to work where they choose. Once an actor becomes eligible to join the guild, they can establish themselves as a financial core employee: paying prorated fees that allow them to take work on both union and nonunion projects. SAG-AFTRA’s Global Rule One limits members strictly to union-centric work; Fi-Core actors are not bound to this rule.

While a well-established star may not feel the need to take lower-paying nonunion jobs, those who are less likely to land major roles could potentially increase their earnings by booking multiple smaller projects. According to The Hollywood Reporter, from 1999 to 2019 commercials that hired nonunion actors skyrocketed from 5-10 percent to 50-70 percent. The substantial increase meant less commercial work for SAG-AFTRA actors and more for non-members. 

On the flip side, Fi-Core status prevents actors from voting on union matters or otherwise having a say in union policies. Since they aren’t considered members of the guild, they don’t have access to conservatory classes and cannot be considered for (or vote on) the SAG Awards — even if they worked on a nominated project. In addition to the more limited resources, these actors are not allowed to claim themselves as members of SAG-AFTRA on any promotional ad or portfolio including résumés, business cards, headshots, or any websites or social media.

What are the benefits of joining SAG-AFTRA?

Other than regulated higher-paying wages and resources like workshops, the biggest benefit of becoming a member is the access to and increased likelihood of being cast in major productions. Unionized producers and filmmakers are more inclined to hire actors within the guild since they could face fees for casting someone on the outside who doesn’t have a specific skill not found within the union. In addition to being prioritized over a non-member, SAG-AFTRA actors are impacted by contract negotiations — including salary increases — as negotiated with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Why would someone avoid Fi-Core? 

When an actor chooses to go Fi-Core it might be because they struggle to find work on union sets and fill in the gaps with nonunion work. The benefit comes with a tradeoff, however. Although there is no official blacklisting of Fi-Core actors that prevents them from switching over to SAG-AFTRA, there is an unspoken taboo for those who choose to float in between. Reinstatement fees, committee meetings, and even written apologies are all potential penance to re-enter the good graces of the guild. An actor’s location is also a big factor in considering whether or not to become a member. While there is no shortage of unionized productions in Los Angeles or New York, actors in other parts of the country are limited in the amount of SAG-AFTRA work available in their area and might not have the ability to make a living solely from union projects. 

Safety and other working condition regulations are also negotiated by the guild. This limits producers on the maximum number of hours they’re allowed to keep actors on set for rehearsals and shoots, and also regulates meal breaks. Filmmakers on nonunion productions have more leeway with their cast.

SAG-AFTRA has always been consistent in its position that full union membership is the only true path to professionalism for working actors. The guild’s official website strongly discourages the Fi-Core route, asking actors to consider the set safety protocols, pension and healthcare contributions, and residuals that come from working on union projects. It also claims that Fi-Core actors working on non-union projects ultimately lower everyone’s earning potential by taking jobs that would otherwise have to pay actors at union rates.

Going down the Fi-Core path is more than a matter of decision for an actor. It’s a practice backed by law that protects all employees who are hesitant to join the movement in a typically unionized environment. Whether or not an employee chooses to become Fi-Core is a prerogative dependent on what works best for them.

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