SAG President Ken Howard: Grilled

“If a strike does happen, you have to be sure it’s something that’s going to shut things down.”

Last Updated: December 1, 2009 @ 5:44 PM
A Screen Actors Guild moderate, Ken Howard was elected guild president with 12,895 votes in September — 31 percent more than the next closest challenger, activist coalition candidate Anne-Marie Johnson. But he walks a fine line, not wanting to appear soft at the negotiating table while billing himself as a unifying presence who wishes to combine forces with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, get along better with constituents like the Directors Guild of America, and enjoy a less vitriolic, rhetorical relationship with management in general. 
TheWrap talked to Howard about SAG’s Hatfields and McCoys, what you need if there’s a strike and "empathy" with management.
You seem to have developed a useful empathy with management …
I don’t call it empathy. It’s always a battle to go up against management, it just doesn’t help to call them the enemy. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to know what their weaponry is and what they’re afraid of.
One of the first things in law school they teach you is to be able to present the other side’s case better than they can. It’s about having a sense of how far management can go. The best agent I ever had, he knew there was a breaking point, when a deal was as good as it was ever going to get.
You’ve come out strongly in favor of a merger with AFTRA. Why?
One of the problems with management is — and I would be this way, too, if I were in their position — they would like nothing better than to play one against the other. This has been going on forever. Imagine if you were a member of the Teamsters, and there was another smaller group that could supply trucks or whatever. That’s the end of the Teamster’s power.
So it would be very good to put all the actors under one tent; it would certainly provide us with more power at the bargaining table. We can’t be turned against each other that way.
There have been two previously unsuccessful attempts to combine these unions. What makes you think it will happen this time?
The merger will happen eventually — it’s in our interest financially, and it has been for some time.
Look, management is looking to fill a lot of air time, and they’ll go any which way possible. For us to divide up makes us vulnerable. I am not interested in leading any kind of strike, but in any kind of negotiation, if a strike does happen, you have to be sure it’s something that’s going to shut things down. And we’re not in that situation right now.
AFTRA president Roberta Reardon insists that no merger will happen unless the entire body of her organization — which includes folks like newscasters — is included. That’s hamstrung earlier merger attempts. How do you feel about this?
I always felt there was no gray area. If there is a merger, (dividing AFTRA) was never anything I considered as possible. That is not an issue.
Do you think SAG as a whole feels like you do?
In 2003, a majority of both unions were in favor of a merger, but a last-minute push by Membership First raised a number of issues — that it could potentially threaten our pensions, for example. I don’t know if it was a conscious misinformation and fear campaign, but it worked. We got only 58.7 percent of the vote rather than the 60 percent needed for ratification.
I was just becoming involved then — I was stupefied. I thought, how did they somehow scare people into doing this? What people often forget is that an overwhelming majority of SAG members are also in AFTRA, anyway.
But is SAG still too divided between moderates and more activist “Membership First” party members for this to happen?
I hear more and more about these factions. But it seems to me that isn’t the case at all. I think I’m representing the overwhelming majority of SAG membership. We had 78 percent ratification of our last deal, and a strong electing of me and (secretary treasurer) Amy Aquino. That doesn’t suggest a faction to me.
Sure, there’s a lot of infighting among the Hollywood division, but in the big picture, I think we’re going to be able to get stuff done.
But things have gotten pretty heated over the last few years.
It’s actors — there’s always going to be lots of emotion and lots of back-and-forth. And there are substantive disagreements that do occur. But there’s lots of history where things get to the level of the Hatfields and McCoys, and you forget who killed whose goat and how the argument started in the first place. If we can just lower the temperature in the room … just the language and the rhetoric needs to calm down.
Besides gearing up for perhaps the most crucial negotiations in SAG history, what else is a priority?
I’ll tell you right now that it’s hard to get into specifics, but the business in general is changing so rapidly, you really need a new business model. I’ll give you just one example: My wife (Linda Fetters), who had a very good stunt career, will receive residual checks for something she did 20 years ago that amount to less than the postage used to send them to her. There’s got to be a better way to get this done. We have to do things so there isn’t the same amount of waste.
Now you go into this rather immersive job having just won your first Emmy, for supporting actor in HBO’s “Grey Gardens.” Is this new gig is going to cut into your acting career?
I don’t see this as one or the other. A lot of people, when they take this job on, are in a place in their career where they’re not acting as much. But Charlton Heston was doing this, and he was at the height of his career.
I’ve had lots of big meetings the last few months, but I have every expectation of continuing to do what I do. You don’t really retire in this business. You get to play the old guy (laughs).
How about a remake of “White Shadow”?
There’s been talk; what it will be, and when and if it will come together, we don’t know yet.