Ken Howard Reelected as SAG-AFTRA President, Challengers Win Secretary-Treasurer Slot and More

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The election was close and results were split as voters fired a shot across the bow of the incumbent faction.

SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard, who has led the union and its predecessor, SAG, since 2009, was reelected to an additional two-year term Thursday night, the union announced, beating challenger Patricia Richardson. But in an upset, challenger Jane Austin won the secretary-treasurer slot and, by a narrow margin, the presidency of the union’s largest local, Los Angeles.

Under union rules, Austin will be able to hold both offices, which will empower her and the Membership First slate (on which she ran) in both the national and local boardrooms.

In addition, the Los Angeles results, which arrived at about 12:30 a.m., showed that challengers on the MF slate had won eight of the nineteen Los Angeles national board slots that were in play, while the incumbent Unite for Strength slate, of which Howard is a leader, had won eleven of those seats.

The Los Angeles tally appeared to signal the resurgence of MF as a force within union politics. The last time the group ran the actors union was 2005-2008, a period marked by internal dissension and stalemated studio contract talks that culminated in the emergence of UFS, replacement of the appointed executive director, resumption of talks and, ultimately, merger with AFTRA in 2012.

But the split results on the national and Los Angeles ballots — accompanied by slightly higher turnout in LA (16.55 percent, or 11,557 ballots returned out of 69,817 mailed) this cycle compared to 2013 (15.09 percent, or about a thousand few ballots returned) — show that MF was able to tap into discontent with UFS’s leadership. Austin beat incumbent LA local president Clyde Kusatsu by just 105 votes, or less than one percent.

There were also two LA-based VP slots in play, and they too were split: MF’s Esai Morales was the top vote getter and UFS’s Ellen Crawford came in second, so they will be the first VP and second VP, respectively.

Morales benefited from his name recognition not just as star, but also from having unsuccessfully challenged Howard two years ago for the union’s top slot. Other boldfaced names, all in the MF camp, included Richardson, Ed Asner and Diane Ladd, all of whom won national board seats designated for LA, and Martin Sheen, who won an LA local board seat.

Howard also won a national board seat (he’ll get to appoint a replacement) and James Cromwell won one of the many convention delegate seats that were in play.

The top seven vote getters in the LA local board election were all MF candidates, and the results split almost evenly, with UFS winning 23 seats and MF picking up 18, giving the group a solid base from which to launch a broader campaign in summer 2017. That prospect may affect the union’s stance in 2016/2017 studio contract negotiations, since the current contract expires in June 2017, just as the elections will be starting.

Across the country this year, 45 of the union’s 70 national board seats were on the ballot. But in the boardroom LA dominates because board members votes are weighted based on the size of the local. MF’s victories give them more power than they’ve had since they were ousted definitively in 2009.

In the race for national president, Howard received 53.74 percent (16,233 votes) while Richardson garnered 46.26 percent (13,976 votes). National turnout was 21.72 percent or 30,263 ballots returned out of 139,313 mailed.

MF’s Jane Austin (52.72 percent; 15,772 votes) bested UFS’s Jenny O’Hara (47.28 percent; 14,143 votes) for the national secretary-treasurer position. Austin’s candidate statement in the union’s ballot booklet may have appealed to frustrated voters: it emphasized the failure to unify the still-separate SAG and AFTRA pension, health and retirement plans even after the unions themselves merged in 2012. Those plans are jointly controlled by management and labor, however, leaving the cause of the delay unclear. One factor may be that the two unions’ legacy television contracts couldn’t be merged until the 2014 contract cycle.

Howard said, “Serving the members of Screen Actors Guild and now SAG-AFTRA has been one of the greatest privileges of my life as an actor. I am honored and grateful to the members for their confidence in our team. From merger to contract gains and beyond, we have together built a strong union that is focused on economic security and opportunity for members. But the fight to protect performers is never over and I am eager to continue it. I thank the members for their support and I'm excited to get back to work.”

Austin said, “The union’s financial well-being is key to its success, and I want to thank the members for entrusting me with this tremendous responsibility. Working with President Howard and the National Board, I am confident we can ensure a strong and secure future for members.”

Earlier in the day, SAG-AFTRA announced the results of its New York elections, and as expected the existing leadership, which ran without organized opposition, was reelected. There were multiple candidates for most offices, but the only two organized slates were each half-sized and ran a unity campaign. Turnout was about 19 percent, somewhat low but not unusually so.

Incumbent local president Mike Hodge was unopposed and thus declared reelected. Maureen Donnelly, Holter Graham, Jim Kerr and Rebecca Damon won VP slots. Twenty eight local board members were elected, including former AFTRA president Roberta Reardon. Seven national board members garnered seats, all but one of them members of the two slates, United Screen Actors Nationwide (which, despite the name, is a NY organization) and New York Coalition for Unity. Interestingly, Chris Cenatiempo, the one New York candidate aligned with MF, garnered 1,628 votes in his unsuccessful quest for a New York based national board seat.

Complete New York results are on the union’s website, along with results from other locals around the country, which had earlier balloting deadlines. All of the local elections included officer and board positions and candidates for delegate to the union’s upcoming biennial convention.

A working actor for more than 40 years and an Emmy and Tony Award winner, Howard helped create and starred in The White Shadow from 1978 – 1982, and has had recurring roles on 30 Rock, Dynasty, Melrose Place and Crossing Jordan. He is the author of the book Act Natural, and national spokesperson for The Onyx and Breezy Foundation and is on their board of directors. Howard was first elected national president of Screen Actors Guild in 2009. Re-elected in 2011, Howard was named co-president of SAG-AFTRA when the two unions merged on March 30, 2012, and became the union’s first elected president in August 2013.

Austin is an experienced stunt performer who owns Hollywood Stuntworks. She has appeared in numerous films, including Wayne’s World 2, two of the Naked Gun movies and Superhero Movie. On television, she has worked on Justified, True Blood, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and V.I.P. She has served 12 years on the boards of SAG-AFTRA and its predecessor unions, including chairing the Stunt Committee.

SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White welcomed the officers saying, “I would like to extend my congratulations to all of the officers elected today. I am especially pleased to welcome President Howard and newly-elected Secretary-Treasurer Jane Austin. The staff and I are eager to partner with them, and elected leaders from across the country, on the many challenges and opportunities ahead.”

The union’s No. 2 position, executive vice president, as well the seven vice president positions, will be elected by delegates at the convention, which takes place in Los Angeles on Oct. 1-4.

Bookmark The Hollywood Reporter’s Labor Page for the most in-depth coverage of entertainment unions and guilds.