The Screen Actors Guild’s choice of its next president could indicate whether actors are ready to go it alone in another bruising fight over Internet compensation or would rather merge with a smaller union for better bargaining leverage.
Ballots were being counted Thursday in SAG’s election pitting union-merger proponent Ken Howard, who recently won an Emmy, against Anne-Marie Johnson, a hard-liner who promises to seek strike authorization before the next round of studio negotiations. Those are set to begin in October 2010.
Also in the running are independent candidate Seymour Cassel and a relative unknown, Asmar Muhammad.
The union and its 120,000 members are coming off a tough round of negotiations in which SAG failed to gain new concessions from Hollywood studios after breaking off joint negotiations with the other actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, known as AFTRA.
The negotiations produced bitter infighting at SAG.
Howard is part of a group called Unite for Strength that led a boardroom coup at SAG in January, installed new negotiators and salvaged a deal with Hollywood producers nearly a year after AFTRA had ratified its own contract. Johnson is part of a separate coalition, Membership First, that was shunted to the board’s minority and saw its leader, president Alan Rosenberg, muzzled on most official guild business.
The deal that SAG actors ratified in June was nearly identical to the one AFTRA got. But because theirs came later, SAG actors lost out on a year of minimum pay increases, and during the labor uncertainty, studios gave about 90 percent of their new TV work to AFTRA.
No matter who is elected president, SAG faces thorny issues in the next bargaining round, including how actors get paid for content that is repeatedly streamed online.
Johnson’s group had sought a strike vote over the issue, saying residual payments for Internet replays amount to far less than what actors had received for TV reruns. The vote fizzled last year as the economy went into the tank.
But ratifying the studios’ final proposal has not increased work for SAG members, she says, as studios continue to try to cut costs. “Our members are now working under these horrific terms,” she said.
Both Howard and Johnson support joint negotiations with AFTRA on the next round of negotiations with the studios on prime-time TV shows and movies. But Howard supports a full merger with AFTRA — 45,000 of its 70,000 members are already in SAG as well — while Johnson wants to adopt only AFTRA actors and performers, not other members such as journalists.
That likely wouldn’t fly with AFTRA President Roberta Reardon, who was re-elected last month and has said she would not stand for her union being torn apart. AFTRA supported a merger with SAG in 1998 and 2003 only to see those efforts fail. Johnson fought against those mergers both times and has criticized AFTRA for undercutting SAG negotiations.
Howard’s coalition is willing to support a strike vote if it were done in conjunction with AFTRA.
About a third of SAG’s national board seats are also up for re-election in Thursday’s count.
Entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, who follows SAG closely, said it would be “extremely unlikely” for Membership First to take back majority control of the board.
“People are pretty sick and tired of the lack of accomplishment that Membership First brought to the union,” Handel said.