Fran Drescher Elected President of SAG-AFTRA, Rival Joely Fisher Wins Secretary-Treasurer
Courtesy of Everett Collection
Fran Drescher has been elected president of SAG-AFTRA, in a narrow victory for the faction that has led the union for a dozen years.
Drescher defeated Matthew Modine, who ran on the rival Membership First slate, by a tally of 52.5% to 47.5%.
Meanwhile, Joely Fisher — who was Modine’s running mate on the Membership First slate — won the race for secretary-treasurer, defeating Drescher’s running mate, Anthony Rapp, by a margin of 57.7% to 42.3%.
Drescher will succeed Gabrielle Carteris, who has led the organization since 2016. Best known for her lead role on “The Nanny,” Drescher led the Unite for Strength slate, which has controlled the union since 2009 and is seen as the more moderate of the two factions that dominate the union’s internal politics.
In a campaign video, Drescher said she would bring “positivity and optimism” to her role as union president.
Modine, whose credits include “Full Metal Jacket” and “Stranger Things,” was making his second bid for president on the Membership First slate. Membership First has been around since 1999, and generally takes a more militant line on contract negotiations.
In a statement on Thursday night, Fisher said it was “bittersweet” that she won while Modine fell short. Fisher’s mother, Connie Stevens, held the secretary-treasurer role in the Screen Actors Guild from 2005-09.
It is not that uncommon for the union to have members from rival factions in the top two posts. A Membership First candidate, Jane Austin, held the secretary-treasurer job from 2015-19, while Unite for Strength held the presidency.
Still, it could create some tensions, as the union seeks to patch up its differences following a bruising campaign.
In an interview with Variety last month, Fisher argued that Drescher lacked the experience on union matters to hold the top job.
“Fran Drescher is a shiny object,” Fisher said. “She’s an accomplished human being. She’s a survivor. She’s talented. She’s a producer. She’s a lot of things. Should she be leading the union? Absolutely not.”
Drescher addressed that criticism in a Unite for Strength town hall on Zoom, citing her decades of activism and charitable work on issues like cancer and sexual violence.
“What I don’t know, I promise you I will learn very quickly, and what I do know cannot be taught,” she said.
In a statement on Thursday night, Drescher said she was honored to serve.
“Together we will navigate through these troubled times of global health crisis and together we will rise up out of the melee to do what we do best, entertain and inform,” she said. “Only as a united front will we have strength against the real opposition in order to achieve what we all want: more benefits, stronger contracts and better protections. Let us lock elbows and together show up with strength at the negotiating table!”
Fisher also said in her statement that it was time to “bridge the divide” in the union ranks.
“I will hold Fran Drescher to her promise to us to protect the members and put more money in our pockets through stronger contract negotiations,” Fisher said.
The union’s two biggest locals, in Los Angeles and New York, also held their elections on Thursday. Ezra Knight, who was running on the Unite for Strenth-aligned USAN slate in New York, was elected president of that local. Knight’s allies on the USAN slate were also elected to the four vice president slots in the New York local.
“I’m humbled, but also inspired by the affirmation shown by the New York membership for me and the USAN team and want to thank each and every person who voted in this important election,” Knight said in a statement. “Let’s move forward together.”
The Membership First slate swept all three races in the Los Angeles local, which is the largest in SAG-AFTRA, with about half the national membership. Jodi Long, the Membership First candidate, was elected local president, and Sheryl Lee Ralph and David Jolliffe were elected first and second vice president. Long defeated Yvette Nicole Brown by 54%-46%. Ralph and Jolliffe took 51.1% and 41% on the vice presidential ballot, beating Unite for Strength candidates Katie Von Till and Jeff Garlin, who had 31.7% and 31.6% of the vote.
The key issue in the national campaign was the August 2020 decision to raise the eligibility threshold for the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan. That decision forced nearly 12,000 actors — mostly seniors — off the health care rolls. The health plan’s trustees have argued that they had little choice, given rising health costs and the dire financial circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Unite for Strength candidates did not defend the decision, but instead stressed that the health plan is a separate entity. However, 20 of the 38 health plan trustees are appointed by the union.
The Membership First slate argued that the health plan’s precarious financial position predated the pandemic, and that the union’s leadership had kept members in the dark about it. They supported a lawsuit, brought last December by 10 plan participants including the late Ed Asner, that laid the blame for the decision on the merger of SAG and AFTRA nearly a decade ago. Drescher has called the suit “frivolous” and argued that it is a waste of members’ money.
The ballot counting is typically open to observers from each campaign. However, due to the pandemic, election observers were forced instead to watch the counting process on Zoom.
A total of 122,154 ballots were mailed to members, and 32,362 were returned, for a turnout of 26.5%. That was up from 2019, when 21.2% of ballots were returned. The union has shrunk considerably since 2019, as 145,692 members received ballots in the prior election.
Drescher received 16,958 votes to Modine’s 15,371. The 2019 race featured five candidates, and Carteris won with 13,537 votes, to Modine’s 10,682.
Before the results were announced on Thursday, Carteris sent a farewell message to the membership, highlighting the union’s work on combatting sexual harassment and adapting to the rise of streaming.
Variety's Gene Maddaus contributed to this post.