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Merger proponent Ken Howard elected SAG president

ACTOR Ken Howard, a proponent of merging two actors unions for better negotiating clout, has been elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, the union said yesterday.

Howard's election - along with that of slate partner Amy Aquino as secretary-treasurer - raises the likelihood that the guild will have tighter coordination with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in new contract talks.

Those talks are to begin with the Hollywood studios in October 2010.

The union and its 120,000 members are coming off a tough round of negotiations in which SAG failed to gain new concessions from the studios after breaking off joint bargaining with AFTRA last year.

The 65-year-old actor, who also won a supporting actor Emmy on Sunday for "Grey Gardens," called for greater unity with AFTRA and other unions such as the writers' and directors' guilds.

"We need to continually remind ourselves that we're all on the same team, fighting for the same thing," he said in a statement. "By pulling together, we'll only grow stronger."

Some 45,000 of AFTRA's 70,000 members also belong to SAG, and the union supported a merger with SAG in 1998 and 2003 only to see those efforts fail.

Howard won 47 percent of the 27,295 ballots that were returned by about 99,500 dues-paying guild members.

His main rival, Anne-Marie Johnson, received 33 percent of the votes, while Seymour Cassel won 18 percent and Asmar Muhammad trailed with just over 1 percent.

Johnson, backed by the combative Membership First group that led stalled negotiations with the Hollywood studios for more than a year, said Cassel was the "spoiler" who helped split votes among hard-liners.

Johnson had promised to press for strike authorization before heading into the next round of talks. Although she lost the race for president, she won a seat on the national board.

"The membership has spoken and I truly respect what the membership says," she said. "The job continues."

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. His two-year term begins Friday.

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.

The contract for prime-time TV shows and movies expires in June 30, 2011, about the same time as those of other unions, allowing SAG to maintain the future threat of a joint strike. Howard's coalition is willing to support a strike vote if it were done in conjunction with AFTRA.

The guild still 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.

About a third of SAG's national board seats were also up for re-election in Thursday's count.


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