Point-blank, I'm not affiliated with SAG, AFTRA, AEA or any other artistic union. While I have heard pros and cons about membership in general from a variety of sources, my layman's view would suggest that being part of the "in" crowd is where it's at.
Member status seems to be a thin veil separating the haves and the have-nots, often literally in terms of separate holding rooms and food services, etc. I have been on sets where this distinction was made so bold it was almost abusive - in one epecially memorable case, the dog on set was treated better.
The sad truth is that ridiculous treatment of non-union actors is somewhat normal. Frankly, I think it's just that the insecurity of the lifestyle is such that many on the other side of the curtain sometimes get a little overzealous in exercising their superior status, as if the distance will somehow protect them in their climb.
Before anybody flames this post, I do want to clarify that I get why keeping every Tom, Dick, Harry, Molly, Sue, Jane and all of their friends from slamming through the curtain is an issue. People get a little crazy about entertainment to begin with, and I can understand how restricting the talent pool to true professionals enables more full-time actors to earn something closer to a living wage. Makes sense.
However, my suspicions about the restrictiveness of the club and its modern caste system underpinnings are confirmed by the difficulty of getting straightforward information. When I've had legitimate questions about benefits and joining, I've received little or no specific response. One union representative told me that I had to come in to the office for a meeting to get my answers; they weren't interested in responding to my email or conversing via telephone.
For better or for worse, the unions matter. While the standing conferred by membership is attractive to some - and infuriating to others who lack it - it's best not to let it get you bent out of shape either way. Rather than fight the system, I intend to keep pursuing work in a professional manner so that I may eventually join the "in" crowd. Maybe this will be the year...