Group won't field candidate pending details on SAG-AFTRA merger plan

Ken Howard may be running unopposed for a second term as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

The self-styled progressives of the Membership First faction won’t run a candidate to oppose Howard’s re-election bid via the Unite for Strength faction — nor a candidate against secretary-treasurer Amy Aquino. An independent candidate could emerge with the deadline for submitting petitions to run arriving next Thursday and voting starting next month.

Anne-Marie Johnson, who opposed Howard two years ago as the head of the Membership First slate, told Variety that the group has opted out because of efforts by SAG’s leaders to push for a merger between SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

“Membership First has decided to wait and see what SAG leadership proposes for a merger plan in January,” she said. “We want to give the current leadership the opportunity to present a merger plan that will benefit actors and performers to ensure the security of a middle-class livelihood and keep a strong pension and health plan intact.”

Former SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg, who won elections in 2005 and 2007 and endorsed Johnson in 2009, told Variety he had considered a run but decided against doing so due to other obligations. He admitted it would be difficult to oppose Howard, given that Unite for Strength’s signature issue has been merger — touted as the best way to resolve jurisdictional overlaps and give actors more power.

“It’s a lie to say that we’ll be stronger by merging with AFTRA,” Rosenberg said. “What they really are pushing for is to assure that SAG will never go on strike again.”

Howard stressed moderation and pragmatism in winning the 2009 election with 47% of the vote over Johnson with 33% and Seymour Cassel with 18% while Aquino narrowly beat Membership First incumbent Connie Stevens. Howard announced last month that he’d seek re-election in order to see through the merger process, with official committees working on hammering out a merger plan by January.

A member vote could take place by this time next year by the 120,000 members of SAG and the 70,000 members of AFTRA — with 45,000 members belonging to both.

Approval requires a 60% super-majority from those voting in both unions. SAG members rebuffed similar efforts in 1998 and 2003 amid concerns that a merger would cause SAG to lose its unique character as an actors union and that a combo could negatively impact the health and pension plans.

In last fall’s election, Membership First insisted that a merged union be for actors only without broadcasters and singers — and then didn’t win a single national board seat. Membership First has fewer than a dozen seats on the 71-member SAG national board, including those held by Johnson, Ed Asner, Scott Bakula, Elliott Gould, Ed Harris, David Jolliffe, Diane Ladd and Martin Sheen.

Johnson said Bakula and Jolliffe would seek board seats in the upcoming election and pledged that she and her allies will keep close watch on the current leadership. “Working actors hear horror stories on the set,” she added. “There’s a sense of disappointment and a loss of faith in SAG as a union so the current leadership and senior SAG staff must regain that faith.”

The predecessor faction to Membership First was the Performers Alliance, which came to power in 1999 when William Daniels topped incumbent Richard Masur and led a six-month strike against the ad industry. The moderates prevailed in the next two elections with Melissa Gilbert topping Valerie Harper in 2001 and Kent McCord in 2003 followed by Rosenberg winning the next two elections as Membership First gained control of the board room.

Unite for Strength formed in 2008 and managed to win enough seats in that election to gain a majority on the board, which has been expanded in the two subsequent elections.

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