Ken Howard, the veteran actor who starred in the 1970s TV series “The White Shadow,” defeated “Home Improvement” actress Patricia Richardson to remain president of Hollywood’s largest entertainment union.
But the race was closer than expected and Richardson’s camp won a surprise victory when her running mate Jane Austin was elected secretary treasurer of SAG-AFTRA and president of the Los Angeles local.
Why did the longtime union president come within 2,257 votes of losing his position?
Richardson tapped into growing anxieties among actors over their shrinking incomes during a period of rapid change in the media landscape. While streaming services such as Netflix have created new opportunities for actors, the shift toward lower-cost online production has dramatically changed how actors are compensated, especially when it comes to residuals, the fees they receive when shows are rerun.
Guild members also were frustrated at the slow pace of merging the union’s health and pension plans, which had been one of the chief goals of combining the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in 2012.
Additionally, Richardson drew heavy support among stunt performers and background actors who’ve long felt marginalized by Hollywood. Austin is a stuntwoman and narrowly defeated Howard’s running mate, actress Jenny O’Hara. She also was elected president of the Los Angeles Local, giving her an important say in committee appointments.
Howard was reelected by a 54% to 46% vote, but even he concedes that the close race was partly a reflection of discontent in the rank and file during a period of digital disruption.
He also said low voter turnout was a factor, saying such elections tend to draw more disaffected members. Only 30,263 of nearly 140,000 members cast ballots in the national election, according to the union.
“I’m relieved that I can continue doing what I can do,” Howard said in an interview Friday morning.
Howard added that he welcomed working with Austin and others who opposed his leadership.
“That’s part of the job – to be inclusive,” he said. “I’ll be able to work with her or anybody else. The reason I got into this union was to bring people together. In terms of embracing new ideas and calls for change – I’ll embrace that the best I can.”
Richardson saw a silver lining her loss.
“What it means is Ken has no mandate of any kind, ” she said in an interview. “He didn’t have his running mate [O’Hara] elected, and he lost a good deal of his support on the local board. Will they [Howard’s supporters] change their ways given that this election was so close and people are obviously not happy? Maybe. I don’t know.”
The election gives Howard, who was first elected in 2009, another two-year term as president of a union with a budget of about $100 million that represents 160,000 actors, singers, dancers, broadcasters and other performers.
Howard leads a faction of moderates that successfully pushed for the merger and still dominate the majority of seats on the 70-member national board. Supporters, who included Tom Hanks and George Clooney, credited him with bringing stability and unity to a once deeply divided union.
But he faced an surprisingly robust challenge from Richardson, who was backed by a more strident group called Membership First, which opposed the merger and had accused Howard’s slate of being too soft on management. Her A-list backers included Ed Harris and Martin Sheen.
The last time Membership First dominated the union was with the 2005 election of Alan Rosenberg, whose tenure was marked by clashes with board dissidents, AFTRA and the major studios.
Richardson took a more conciliatory approach. She refused to directly criticize Howard and stressed common ground with former opponents and members who aren’t actors, including broadcasters who had once been disparaged by her supporters.
“I was always saying no matter what we do, if we can move the party [Membership First] away from the reputation we seem to have built unfairly, to where we’re in a better position the next time, we’ll have gained something,” she said. “I felt we really made headway in getting back in this game.”
Indeed, Richardson’s strong showing in the election is expected to elevate her gadfly status on the board, where she was elected to another four-year term. It will also make it easier for her to challenge Howard in the next election and exert some influence in contract negotiations with the major studios.
Richardson and her supporters criticized Howard’s handling of past negotiations. The previous three-year film and TV contract, which was overwhelmingly approved by the union’s members last summer, provided modest wage hikes, a uniform set of terms for basic cable television, and TV pay rates for high-budget Internet shows like Netflix’s “House of Cards.”
But Richardson said negotiators could have done better by, for example, securing higher residuals for basic cable TV shows and residuals for lower-budget new media shows.
Her supporters have highlighted an email — among the trove of hacked communications posted online — that quoted a Sony executive as saying the SAG-AFTRA negotiations “were successful for the studios” and represented a “big win for us.”
Howard argued that the Sony email was taken out of context and strenuously defended his record, citing such gains as bringing disparate TV contracts under a single agreement and extending union contracts to new groups of workers at radio and broadcasting stations. He also went on the offensive. In a recent email to members, he accused his opponents of making “empty promises” and taking divisive positions that would weaken the union.
The election also highlighted questions surrounding the guild’s spending and transparency in its dealings with members.
Richardson had faulted the guild’s handling of a change in its method for calculating dues of highly paid actors in 2011. In a Times story this week, Richardson said the guild did not properly communicate the change to members.
Howard disagreed and said the new methodology was initiated by some of the guild’s highest-profile members who wanted to pay their share of dues.
Poor Ken he accuses others of making “empty promises” while assuring actors of “empty pockets!”
The Ol’ SAG Watchdog
*Photo selected by Watchdog.
August 14, 2015 | 04:47PM PT
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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Ask yourself only one question before you vote …were you better off before Ken and his giveaway gang took over!!!!
The Ol’ SAG Watchdog
*Photo selected by Watchdog
SAG-AFTRA secretary-treasurer Amy Aquino is turning out to be a major wildcard in the union’s upcoming elections. A co-founder of Ken Howard’s Unite for Strength slate, she had been his top running mate in the union’s last election, and before the merger, had been his top running mate in the last two SAG elections. But now she’s not endorsing him for president and doesn’t even think he should be elected to serve on the SAG-AFTRA national board of directors. It would appear that they’ve had a serious falling out.
And while she’s not endorsing Membership First’s Patricia Richardson for president, either, she is endorsing her for a seat on the national board. Howard is running for reelection to the national board too, but Aquino is not endorsing him.
Aquino, who isn’t seeking reelection as secretary-treasurer – she’s running as an independent for the national board and as a delegate to the upcoming convention – isn’t endorsing either presidential candidate – Howard or Richardson, or either candidate for secretary-treasurer – Jane Austin (Membership First) or Jenny O’Hara (Unite for Strength).
“There are two opposing slates in the national and LA elections – Unite for Strength and Membership First,” she said today in an email to the union’s members. “I don’t recommend a straight slate vote for either one.”
Union observers were surprised on June 1 when Aquino’s name wasn’t listed among the candidates running on the Unite for Strength slate, but until now, she’s remained mum about who she is, and isn’t, supporting.
“As for national president and secretary-treasurer, I believe that all four candidates are equally capable of serving, and all should be seriously considered,” she wrote, but then took a not-so-veiled swing at the current leadership’s group-think. “What is critical for the union now is diversity of thought and leadership,” she wrote. “We need respect for the democratic process, and a board that welcomes dissenting opinions, fosters debate and nurtures the collectivism that defines a healthy labor organization.” All of that, she suggests, is now missing.
True to her word, she’s supporting an eclectic mix of board candidates and convention delegates, including several who, like her, are running as independents. She’s recommending 12 Unite for Strength candidates for the national board – but not Howard – and four from Membership First, including Richardson and David Jolliffe, one of the leaders of Membership First. For the local board, she’s endorsing 24 candidates from Unite for Strength, and nine from Membership First, including Richardson and Jolliffe.
“This is the board that will oversee our next two big contract negotiations, and nothing could be more important,” she wrote. “As for myself, I have accomplished what I hoped to as secretary-treasurer, first of SAG and now SAG-AFTRA. I would still like to be of service, though, and would appreciate your LA vote for National Board and (convention) delegate.”