Very few men or women alive today can say that they presided over the creation of a major labor union. With the passing of Ken Howard today, there is one fewer.
The dream of merging SAG and AFTRA — the two most powerful actors unions in the country — had been kicking around for decades, but it might never have come about if not for Howard’s steadfast commitment to the idea of one union covering all film and TV performers, broadcasters and recording artists. The merger of the two unions into SAG-AFTRA will be his legacy, and he died just a week short of the combined entity’s fourth anniversary.
Of course, he couldn’t have done it alone. The merger was backed by SAG Executive Director David White, by AFTRA president Roberta Reardon and by the powerful AFL-CIO. But Howard was the face and the voice of merger, and no one pushed harder for it than he — and it required a lot of pushing. There were then, and there remain today, many who strongly opposed the tie-up. But they were on the losing side of history, and thanks in no small part to Howard’s leadership, the members of SAG accepted his vision and voted overwhelmingly to approve it.
Going forward, it will be up to those who follow in his footsteps to ensure that the best of both unions survive in the one he helped create. No doubt, there will be awards and such named after him, but the best way to honor his legacy will be for all performers — even those who opposed the merger — to work hard to see that his dream of a stronger union becomes a reality. With his passing, there could be no better time to put aside old differences.
Like so many who came before him, Howard came to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune. But in the end, he made more than money, and he made more than just a name for himself. He made a difference.