SAG-AFTRA’s Ken Howard-Patricia Richardson Contest Intensifies

With final voting less than a week away, the contest for the SAG-AFTRA presidency between Ken Howard and Patricia Richardson has gone into the trench warfare stage.

Richardson, best known as the star of “Home Improvement,” has largely eschewed attacking Howard during the two months since declaring her candidacy but has become perturbed over campaign assertions by Howard’s Unite For Strength faction that Richardson’s allies in the Membership First faction never closed any “major new contracts.”

“What Unite For Strength has done is outrageous and just not fair,” she told Variety. “It’s a lie. We’ve been trying really hard to not attack Ken because we all have the same enemy — the producers, who love this kind of infighting.”

The Membership First website has addressed the issue by listing four contracts that it negotiated while it was in power and asserting on its site, “Contrary to what you have been told about Membership First, during its tenure, Membership First negotiated landmark gains for Screen Actors Guild members in major contracts.”

The self-styled progressives of Membership First were last in power between 2005 and 2009, when Howard and his allies took over the boardroom. Howard was re-elected in 2011 and 2013 on a platform of moderation along with merging SAG and AFTRA.

The deadline for voting by the union’s 165,000 members is Aug. 20. Howard has stayed on the attack during the current campaign and sent out a blistering email Friday that began, “Are you willing to let our union take a step backward?”

“Don’t be fooled by the empty promises made by Membership First,” he said. “They were so opposed to bringing SAG and AFTRA together that they sued our union in an attempt to prevent members from even voting on merger. They failed to negotiate any new major contracts and left us divided and weak at the bargaining table. There is still more to be done, and stepping backward is not an option.”

Howard was the foremost backer of the 2012 merger between SAG and AFTRA — a move that was bitterly opposed by Membership First on grounds that it would take away SAG’s unique character as an actors union. The faction went to court unsuccessfully to stop the election, alleging that a required feasibility study had not been performed on the effect that the merger would have on the SAG health plan participants.

SAG members backed the merger, which was touted by Howard as a way to solve the problem of the SAG and AFTRA health and pension plans being operated separately.

For her part, Richardson has criticized Unite For Strength on several other fronts such as spending lavishly on the New York offices while closing smaller branches; failing to mobilize members in contract negotiations; keeping members in the dark on details of operations; and incorrectly asserting that the separate SAG and AFTRA health and retirement plans are near combining.

“Saying the plans are close to merging is incredibly misleading,” she said Friday. “It’s an incredibly complicated process that’s nowhere near completed.”

Membership First has less than a dozen reps on the 70-seat national board, with 45 of those seats being contested. The faction, which includes national board members Richardson, Joanna Cassidy, Esai Morales and Martin Sheen, would not be able to take power again until the 2017 election at the earliest.

Richardson reiterated her promise that if elected, she would not replace Howard’s allies as committee chiefs. “We want to make this into a much more cohesive board room,” she added.

Howard’s email asserted, “Unite for Strength has brought unity and strength to the bargaining table, and we have delivered what we promised and more.”

He said the faction has been responsible for the merger of SAG and AFTRA; over $800 million in contract gains; faster residuals processing; “significant progress” leading to the merger of the health plans; and California’s $330 million tax incentive.

Taking credit for the legislature’s action may be over-reaching somewhat, since SAG-AFTRA was only one of the many Hollywood unions and trade groups supporting last year’s expansion of the state’s production incentive program.

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