It’s been a turbulent two years for the Screen Actors Guild. The top union for movie and TV actors fought for months with Hollywood producers over a new contract. And in the middle of that fight, SAG got into a nasty battle with the other union for Hollywood performers.
This week, members of the Screen Actors Guild will choose the union’s leaders for the next two years. Ballots are due on Thursday. KPCC’s Brian Watt spoke with two candidates vying to be the next president of SAG.
Brian Watt: After 12 years on SAG’s National Board of Directors, Anne-Marie Johnson knows the ins and outs of contract talks and Guild politics. The slender African-American actress starred in TV’s In the Heat of the Night and JAG. She says organized labor is in her blood.
Anne-Marie Johnson: My father was in the LAPD union. My mother was a schoolteacher in the schoolteacher’s union. I was a Teamster as a tour guide at Universal Studios. This is what I know. I’m a unionist and I believe in union.
Watt: Her opponent Ken Howard has been on SAG’s National Board for just a year. The high school basketball star from Long Island starred in the 1970s TV series The White Shadow, and more recently Cold Case and Grey Gardens. Howard believes Johnson and SAG’s current president Alan Rosenberg have taken unionism in the wrong direction.
Ken Howard: If you really want to be a unionist in the progressive history of unions, it is to merge with other unions and build as much strength, as much consensus, as much as numbers as you possibly can within the group of artists.
Watt: The question of merging with another Hollywood union – the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists, or AFTRA – divides the candidates for SAG president.
Johnson: No, I don’t believe in a wholesale merger with any union, particularly not with AFTRA.
Watt: Anne-Marie Johnson and the more militant Membership First team fought against a merger with AFTRA when it came before the rank and file six years ago. AFTRA represents more than just actors. Its members include actors – but radio and TV announcers, too. And that’s what bugs Johnson about the two unions getting together.
Johnson: A uniting of all actors and performers under the protection of one union is much more doable, much more realistic, and much more advantageous than all members of Screen Actors Guild merging with AFTRA, because there’s a significant number of members of AFTRA who know absolutely nothing of what we do. Broadcasters don’t have the same concerns that actors do. Recording artists and disc jockeys don’t have the same concerns.
Watt: Ken Howard and the moderate Unite for Strength faction are all for a SAG-AFTRA merger.
Howard: It’s not like we’re gonna separate into people who are actors as opposed to who’s a broadcaster, who’s a variety host, who’s a backup musician. No, no, no. That’s what the merger must be.
You can’t just be picking out the artists. That’s back to her. I think it’s a kind of actor elitism that may have had some relevance at some point in this business, but not anymore. Not with what’s going on with reality television and all the blending lines of jurisdiction.
Watt: More than half of AFTRA’s members are also in the Screen Actors Guild. For 25 years, the two unions bargained as a team. But after a turf dispute last year, AFTRA bolted and reached its own deal with film and TV producers. SAG members were left working under the less lucrative terms of an expired contract for almost a year – while more than 80 percent of new television pilots signed up with AFTRA.
Two more people are seeking the SAG presidency: Seymour Cassel, who nearly defeated Alan Rosenberg two years ago, and the relative unknown Asmar Muhammad. SAG members are also voting to fill a number of open seats on the Guild’s national board.