What's Next for SAG-AFTRA? Gabrielle Carteris Steps in as Union Mourns Ken Howard (Analysis)

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Gabrielle Carteris, Ken Howard

The passing of Ken Howard comes at a critical time for the union he loved.

The death of actor and SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard on Wednesday triggered mourning from Hollywood notables and union activists, with one calling this reporter from the streets of New York distraught and disbelieving to confirm the reports.

Howard’s colleagues are deeply bereaved, and their sorrow is mixed with concern at what happens next for the union, which is at a critical juncture now and over the next 18 months. It’s the first time a SAG, AFTRA or SAG-AFTRA president has died in office, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. 

Most immediately, union executive vp Gabrielle Carteris is now acting president. A veteran of Beverly Hills, 90210, Carteris is in her second term as exec vp. She was elected most recently last October, with 79 percent of the vote at the SAG-AFTRA biennial convention. She was first elected exec vp in 2013, at the time a surprise candidate who ran without Howard’s endorsement during a complicated factional split and after appointing a member of the anti-merger MembershipFirst slate to her former board seat. Some hailed that as a gracious reach across the aisle, while others called it a betrayal and a horse trade that helped Carteris win the exec vp seat. But in any case, she subsequently worked closely and harmoniously with Howard.

Prior to exec vp, Carteris was a SAG-AFTRA national vp for Los Angeles, and she served both predecessor unions before the SAG/AFTRA merger in 2012 in a variety of board, officer and delegate positions, including as a member of the G1 (Group for One Union) committee that developed the detailed merger plan.

But Carteris’ role as acting president lasts only until the next national board meeting, which THR has learned is set for April 9-10. At that point, the board will elect a replacement to serve out Howard’s term, which runs until October 2017. Whether Carteris will be elected president is unknown, although she seems the most likely pick.

Her elevation, if it happens, could set off a scramble for exec vp. The other national officer, secretary-treasurer, is Jane Austin, who is also president of the Los Angeles local. But Austin hails from the MembershipFirst slate that opposed union merger and is at odds with the dominant Unite for Strength faction.

Whether UFS would agree to elevate Austin is an open question, but it seems unlikely. The recent vote at an L.A. membership meeting by MF stalwarts to fire executive director David White — a symbolic vote with no practical effect — reopened wounds that date back a decade and more. Howard, along with White and others, helped guide SAG to merge with AFTRA after more than a half-century of discussion and various failed attempts.

“Ken was a remarkable leader and his powerful vision for this union was a source of inspiration for all of us,” White said in a statement. “He was an exceptional person and we are deeply saddened by his passing. The merger of SAG and AFTRA was something of a ‘North Star’ for him and, once he fixed upon it, he never wavered from that goal. My heart goes out to his loving wife, Linda, and to their family. He will be deeply missed.”

White and many of the union’s top staff and officers have been in New York negotiating the SAG-AFTRA commercials contracts with representatives of the advertising industry and of major national advertisers. That contract, likely worth over a billion dollars per year in earnings (exact figures are not available), is one of the union’s largest and is rivaled only by the TV/theatrical contract.

Those talks may pause briefly, if at all, for SAG-AFTRA negotiators to process the loss of the union president — indeed, Carteris is also co-chair of the commercials negotiating committee — but no one is saying anything on the subject, as the negotiations are being held under a media blackout. The current contract expires in eight days, but an extension is likely if negotiations don’t conclude before then.

Later this year, the union will begin preparations for negotiating the TV/theatrical contract, which expires mid-2017. The corresponding DGA and WGA contracts also expire next year, and it has not yet been announced whether, as is frequently the case, the DGA will negotiate first. Whoever goes first will likely negotiate this fall, well in advance of the expirations.

For SAG-AFTRA, those negotiations, whenever they occur, will be conducted under the shadow of the next race for union president, which will take place roughly June through September next year. If Carteris is elevated to president next month, she’ll be the incumbent should she choose to run for re-election. Howard, who had served since 2009 as president of SAG and then SAG-AFTRA, had not been expected to run for re-election.

Also on the agenda is merger of the SAG and AFTRA health plans. An AFTRA plan trustee recently said he expected that merger to occur by this coming January, and for UFS, achieving that benchmark may well be critical to electoral success next year.

All in all, it will be an eventful 18 months. Howard was expected to be a steadying hand throughout the process and will be sorely missed by many union members and colleagues. No information about funeral or memorial arrangement was available at this writing, but the union said that remembrance contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and the Onyx and Breezy Foundation for the Welfare of Animals, for which Howard served as national spokesman.

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