With Hollywood actors facing wrenching changes, Screen Actors Guild president Ken Howard asserts that his key goal is to help SAG’s 120,000 members react effectively.
“The biggest concern for most actors has and always will be getting enough work — it’s just part of our profession — but a real change is the idea that performers have to be more versatile and entrepreneurial in their careers,” Howard says.
He’s been SAG’s 24th president for more than a year — elected a few weeks after winning a supporting actor Emmy for “Grey Gardens” — and that tenure’s deepened his resolve to keep pushing for SAG to combine with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which has about 70,000 members including broadcasters and musicians. SAG and AFTRA share about 45,000 members.
“The obvious challenge to both SAG and AFTRA is remaining current in a rapidly changing industry,” says Howard. “We have to be nimble, pro-active and unified, and we’ve got to bring compelling value to future members. Young performers don’t want to join two unions to pursue a career; we have to end that and become a single organization that works powerfully for them.”
That point of view appears to be gaining traction among members with Howard and his allies now dominating the SAG boardroom. The guild’s national board has shifted to a more pragmatic bent over the last two years after four years of aggressiveness toward employers and its sister union, AFTRA.
Howard headed negotiations for seven weeks in the fall for a new deal on the SAG-AFTRA contract covering feature and primetime work, and more than 93.5% of members endorsed the pact — with opposition minimal compared with 2009, when only 78% of SAG members voted for a new deal. The key gain was a boost in health and pension benefits from 15% to 16.5%. SAG’s been relatively tranquil compared with two years ago when the national board fired Doug Allen as national exec director and replaced him with David White.
That tenure’s included cutting several dozen staff slots in order to stop SAG from operating in the red.
“The political situation is much calmer,” White allows. “Our meetings start and end on time and I think there’s a real effort to find common ground. And I did not expect to enjoy the daily job as much as I do.”
That’s not to say it’s been all smooth sailing at SAG. Frustration remains over producers opting to sign with AFTRA on nearly all new primetime shows following SAG’s unsuccessful strategy in 2008 to hold out for a better deal for a year. Additionally, opponents of ratification pointed to the elimination of the first-class air travel requirement and voiced frustration over the guild not gaining jurisdiction over motion capture work.
And the question of the merger is certain to spark serious debate on a number of fronts — such as what name to affix to the merged identity — with Howard and AFTRA counterpart Roberta Reardon having launched a multi-city “listening tour” Jan. 10 to confer with members about such a move. White would not even speculate what the combined entity would be called.
“Both organizations share a deep history,” White says. “So those are the types of details that leaders and members need to work out.”
The merger has been voted down twice by SAG — in 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. Those are still potentially explosive issues, but Howard believes members would favor a merger so they’re no longer faced with a scenario of contributing to two separate health plans and not qualifying for either.
“As we’ve been listening to members, Roberta and I have heard one thing continually: they are being hurt from having their work divided and need one union as soon as possible,” Howard says. “There’s a palpable sense that now is the time to unite SAG and AFTRA. And personally, I’d like to harness that energy to get the job done by year’s end. But even if finalizing it takes until January or February next year, the message from members is clear: they are waiting for this to happen.”
And at this point, Howard’s indicated that the issue’s important enough that he’s willing to seek another two-year term as president next September.
“It’s a big commitment,” he says, “but I’d really like to see the work we’ve started through to the finish.”
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