SAG president’s learning curve

Ken Howard learning he can't be two places at once

Ken Howard, who in September became the 24th president of the Screen Actors Guild, is finding that his already-full schedule has expanded exponentially.

I knew this would be a rather steep learning curve, but it’s surprised me how many responsibilities the president has — often with obligations at the same time,” he noted recently. “It’s been a real lesson in learning to delegate. I’ve never had the problem of having to deal with multiple invitations before.”

Howard is part of a sea change that’s occurred in the SAG leadership as the guild’s national board shifted to a more pragmatic bent after four years of aggressiveness toward employers and its sister union, AFTRA. He’s been an advocate of SAG improving its relations with the town’s other unions and moving toward a merger with AFTRA.

The basic premise that I ran on last year was that unions can be much more effective if they’re working together,” he says. “I think it’s what most of the members want, and I think people respond to the idea that when we work together as equal partners, we’ll get the best results. I wish there were more agreement, but I think our majority is growing.”

SAG’s been relatively tranquil compared with a year ago when the national board fired Doug Allen as national exec director and replaced him with David White. Since winning the presidency, Howard’s been striving to keep criticism of his opponents to a minimum. Howard, who won an Emmy for “Grey Gardens” a few weeks before winning the presidency, is also continuing to work as an actor. He spent several weeks before the holiday break in Vancouver on the series “Facing Kate” — not under a SAG deal but rather under an AFTRA contract.

It was a great reminder of the sort of meat-and-potatoes issues on working conditions that actors face,” he says. “I feel like it’s something that I need to continue doing so I know what it’s like.”

AFTRA’s made significant inroads in TV coverage in recent years, partly due to SAG’s leaders holding out unsuccessfully for a year for a better deal than AFTRA — which negotiated its own primetime deal for the first time in three decades.

Merger has been voted down twice by SAG — 1999 and 2003 — with opponents asserting that the combo would strip SAG of its unique character and warning that the SAG health and pension plans may suffer. That’s still a potentially explosive issue, but Howard believes that the first step toward merger will come later this month.

He anticipates that SAG’s leaders will agree to a framework for joint negotiations with AFTRA this month. But he acknowledges that merger remains a long way off, and he hasn’t committed to a timetable.

I’m still learning,” he adds. “I’m impressed with our staff and with David White. And one of the things that amazes people is that I’m doing this job for free.”

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