So I just read Hillel Aron's LA WEEKLY cover story on extras (or, as they'd prefer to be called, background actors). On the cover of the physical (on-paper) WEEKLY, the headline is PROPS THAT EAT.
Here's a link to Aron's article in its entirety:
The article highlights the very few background performers (who now are in the combined SAG/AFTRA) who successfully network with directors and assistant directors and make large annual salaries.
As for the quite large number of background performers who are nonunion, there's a quote from an unnamed producer who seems rather proud of how little he feeds them on big background calls (pizza, plus a snack table with popcorn and bottled water).
Briefly, here was my experience of extra work between 1988 and 1997:
NONUNION: Generally paid $40 for an 8-hour day plus overtime, though some smaller extra casting companies would pay $35. As Aron mentions in the article, extras are segregated from the cast/crew at mealtime; some studio productions that employed large numbers of nonunion background would opt for box lunches, which varied in quality. Without the nominal protections of being (pre-1992) in the Screen Extras Guild (which, if memory is correct, would pay $85 for upper-tier and $42 for lower-tier per 8-hour day), nonunion extras could, on occasion, receive more verbal abuse/threats of dismissal from production assistants and assistant directors. Nonunion extras, upon signing with a casting agency (or perhaps a calling service which would contact casting agencies for the extra), would often receive a page of on-set etiquette tips with this admonition invariably capitalized:
DRUGS AND ALCOHOL ARE THE KISS OF DEATH ON OUR SETS!
UNION: I became a SAG member in late 1991 by being given dialogue to speak on the film CHAPLIN by director Richard Attenborough (my moment was cut from the final print, but I still receive occasional small residual checks). Most extras who make the transition from nonunion to union do it by way of the three-Union-voucher system (still in effect, according to Aron's article); this means a nonunion extra has to receive three SAG/AFTRA pay vouchers before qualifying to join. In earlier days, AFTRA membership could be achieved by either paying a certain amount outright or applying paychecks for AFTRA work towards the entry fee.
If background actors felt they needed to talk to the union about the production they worked on, a representative would on occasion show up on-set. Sometimes, though, background people feared retaliation and blackballing and stayed silent. Also, if a background actor was injured and/or incapacitated, he/she could be reluctant to collect Workers' Compensation for fear of--you guessed it--retaliation and blackballing.
SAG extra salaries were shrunk to $65/8-hour day in 1992; by the time I left extra work in 1997, I remember them rising to $90/8. Stand-ins were paid around $90/8 circa 1993--the rate increased later. As Aron says, the best pay of union background work--then and now--can come from working on commercials.
Essentially, extra work on feature films and television is equivalent to temp work in an office. Some environments will be kind and treat background people as professionals who are integral to creating an environment within a scene (when I was an extra, it seemed as if foreign directors working in America such as Philip Noyce, Stephen Frears and Martin Campbell were better about reaching out to background performers than most Americans, who, either for DGA or other reasons, often delegated matters to their assistant directors). Other times, you're thrown into a tense, high-decibel environment and professionalism/quality of work/nervous system gets tested immediately.
In any event, do your best and stay calm if you choose to go into what one cinematographer called "this madness" that creates entertainment for everyday people and "content" for the corporate owners of major studios.