The State of Ken Howard's Union

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It has been a little more than three months since Ken Howard was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, but it's been a busy three months. Howard and his fellow moderates in the guild leadership struck a major victory in October when the national board of directors named interim executive director David White permanent director. But the new regime suffered a setback a little more than two weeks later when a small group of members scuttled a proposed agreement with video game producers—an agreement that had been jointly negotiated with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, whose members later approved a similar deal.

But the greatest task of Howard's tenure as president starts in October, when the guild will begin negotiations on the new television and theatrical contract, the current version of which expires in 2011. Howard campaigned on the promise of healing SAG's relationship with AFTRA, which had been torn apart in 2008 by then-president Alan Rosenberg's attacks on the sister union and AFTRA's subsequent decision to break from joint negotiations with SAG and sign its own TV-theatrical deal. Howard has been an open advocate of a merger between SAG and AFTRA and says the first step toward that marriage is a joint return to the TV-theatrical bargaining table. He spoke to Back Stage about the year ahead for SAG.

Back Stage: Was there unjustified confusion over the proposed video-game deal?

Ken Howard: Not really. What happened here, quite frankly, is that I think there was a very good argument by that group of actors [who work in the video-game industry] very specific to what they wanted. The issue was "Do you want to take yourselves completely out of this market? Is it worth it to take yourself out of this market and give up all jurisdiction, or do you want to stay in the market as it's growing?" It's not an issue that would have come up if we were merged with AFTRA. And this you'll see again and again and again. It was, "Oh, we're not merged. What do we do? Well, we're just not going to take that deal." Okay, then it's all going to go AFTRA, and as it builds—and this business is building—it builds as AFTRA.

Now, I and an awful lot of SAG people, we all have AFTRA cards. I've had an AFTRA card almost as long as the SAG card. There is that, where you wind up going on the AFTRA deal. I try not to talk about merger so much because it's something in the future and it's what I ran on, and it's what I want to have happen, but there are other things we have to do first. But so many conversations, one way or the other, devolve back to merger. That's a perfect example. That takes it right off the table. Then they're dealing with one union, and we do the best we can, and then if at some point we say, "We're not going to take this deal," it means they haven't got anybody.

Back Stage: How confident are you that the TV-theatrical deal is going to be jointly negotiated with AFTRA?

Howard: I think it will happen. I've made my feelings clear about merger. I think it's a crucial step to protect the interests of professional performers. But right now, as [AFTRA president] Roberta [Reardon] says, we need to focus on the upcoming negotiations. But if we can have a successful joint negotiation—and I think we can—then that can help advance the goal of an eventual merger. That's the reason to negotiate as partners, because there was damage done this last time [when AFTRA broke off from joint negotiations with SAG in 2008], and I think to avoid that and to find a way to work together will be a huge step toward mending a lot of fences.

Roberta Reardon was very big on merger for a long time. I think Roberta, understandably, is not about to jump right back in after a brief time. But time, it does heal wounds, and it doesn't take that long. We've spoken a lot. We'll speak some more, and as we get into January and into the spring, I'd like them to not be so reluctant, quite frankly, to make it clear that we're going to go in together next year. I think the sooner the better. They can be reluctant for a while, but I think it's so inevitable that I tend to stay very positive, because I can't imagine actually not wanting to negotiate with us side by side.

Back Stage: What are some of the goals that you have going into that negotiation?

Howard: I want to start with very simple stuff. I want to start with working conditions and hours and how people get fed—and how that's written down and how they're safe and how they're protected. That is the first thing that has to be addressed. And from that, then we can move on to salary levels, issues of residuals, how we get the piece of the pie that goes to the creative community. As we get to that, I hope we come to the realization [that] the way that profit and money is accrued doesn't have to do anymore with the delivery systems involved. It's just so labyrinthine once you get into all the various ways that things are being delivered and how it's getting paid. It's a mess, rather than putting it under one umbrella and saying, "From all this, take a certain amount of profit."

Now, I know that's a whole new approach and that's a whole different way of looking at this and a whole different kind of language, but it's a whole different business now. I mean, look how fast it's changing in terms of how we're going to receive a television show. We know that it's going to happen sooner than we think. It's not going to be five years from now. Before that, we're going to be sitting down and hitting some button on our television and what we're seeing is going to be coming through the Internet. We all know that. And here's the beauty of it: It works for us. I'm convinced, if done right, it works for the Screen Actors Guild and it works for performers and actors.

Back Stage
: So is it possible to predict a point at which the new-media contract and the TV and theatrical contract and the other deals could all be essentially the same deal?

: Kind of. This is where the lawyers come in. You can't be too specific. If you get too specific, nobody's going to want to go along with that. There has to be an aspect of generality to some of this language. However, if management says, "Absolutely not in any way do you get to share in this whole new area of media," well, that's a dumb way to start. You gotta crack open the door.

And this isn't about management now. In the history of show business, going probably back to Shakespeare but certainly in the history of the Screen Actors Guild, management doesn't like to pay any more money than they have to to the creative talent. They don't. We know that. So a lot of this is a battle. But they don't have to be the enemy. They can be our collaborators, the people we work with.

I don't want to sound like Pollyanna. I would love to come out of this next negotiation and everybody's happy. But that isn't going to happen. What I would like is to come out where nobody's happy, but nobody's that unhappy either. It's not exactly celebratory, but you also just don't want to jump off a bridge. That would be a colossal victory to be able to manage on that level.

Back Stage: About 27 percent of your dues-paying members voted in the election in which you were elected. In the previous national election, that percentage was even lower. Is engaging more members to be active a priority going into this year?

Howard: I think we have to do better. I think the word has to get out that things are being done a little more rationally, a little better. Because let's face it, there was this whole view of "Ugh, the Screen Actors Guild." I don't mean the last administration. I mean overall. For a long time there's been the view—a P.R. problem that's been there for a long time—of the Screen Actors Guild as dysfunctional.

I think with some of this positive stuff, maybe we can get the numbers up. Now, I don't know how high we can get them up. But it would be great if we could get a third of the members. That's a dream, maybe, but not ridiculous. If you have 40,000 people of 120,000 active people, that's a lot of people making a statement. It's a realistic goal. I would like to say that our goal is to have every member voting, but that's like saying our goal is to have no homeless people on the streets anymore. Okay, that's a goal, but how about if you really put a dent in it every year? That's what we've got to do, is build on it. It's baby steps followed by more baby steps. I think we can build that way. The only way I know how to manage this and go forward is purposefully, slowly, and carefully. Even though we only have so much time.