The Lessons of Leadership
Volume 115, No. 3March, 2015
Roberta Reardon on the strengths and challenges of the labor movement and how we can all move forward together
Roberta Reardon is the founding co-president of SAG-AFTRA, starting with its overwhelmingly successful merger vote on March 30, 2012, until she stepped down in August 2013. Previously, she served three terms as national president of AFTRA and as president of the New York local. She also served as a vice president of the AFL-CIO from 2009 to 2013. Reardon started her career working in daytime dramas and has appeared in hundreds of commercials, both on camera and voiceover, as well as numerous stage plays. She is a trustee of the AFTRA Health and Retirement Funds and is on the board of the AFTRA Foundation. She also serves on the board of the Actors Fund and is on the Executive Board of the New York City Central Labor Council. Reardon has twice been listed on The Hollywood Reporter’s Annual Women in Entertainment “Power 100” and was also named in Elle Magazine’s Women in Hollywood “Power List.” She is currently consulting with the AFL-CIO and also teaches at the Murphy Labor Institute at CUNY while continuing to work as an actor. Local 802 union rep Miguel Santana recently interviewed Roberta Reardon for his course at Cornell’s Union Leadership Institute. An edited version appears here.
Miguel Santana: What do you think is the greatest challenge for the labor movement right now?
Roberta Reardon: I think one of the greatest challenges for my union and for the labor movement is the changing dynamics of power and wealth in this country. I think that there was a time in the not-too-distant past when working Americans who were highly productive shared in the fruits of their labor in a way that they no longer do. And the income inequality in this country has made it more and more difficult for workers to have a good middle class life. It also makes it much more difficult for unions to survive. Wealth is accumulated at the top by a few multinational corporations and a few billionaires. Their distance from the people who create that wealth is becoming greater, and so is their fear. They have less and less incentive to share. They’ve accumulated such a huge amount of wealth that they’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s created by people who work. Most companies just care about how they are going to make profit for themselves and their stockholders. They never talk about creating jobs. They talk about creating wealth. And those are two very different things.
Miguel Santana: Tell us about your background.
Roberta Reardon: I am an actor who has spent most of my career here in New York. I grew up in a very small town in Indiana and came here to pursue my career after college. I worked in daytime dramas when I first arrived and then went on to work with a number of theater companies in NYC as well as in regional theater. A large part of my career has been in commercials, both on camera and voiceovers, as well as narrations. I never really got involved with the union until the late 90s. I was probably in that sense very much like a lot of working actors in New York. I supported the union; I voted in the elections. But it didn’t occur to me to run for office. I went to one membership meeting which was so uninteresting I never went back. I didn’t know what they were talking about. There were a lot of people who were much older than me and I just felt like I didn’t fit in there. And in the late 90s, SAG and AFTRA were starting their first official attempt to merge. They were going to take it to a vote and I got elected to go to the convention in 1997 as a delegate because I supported the merger. I was simultaneously elected to our local board and national board. I liked the people who I worked with on the local board; they were very active and engaged. That first merger attempt failed, which was sad – but meanwhile I got looped into some jobs in the local. The commercials strike of 2000 was a very formative event for me and many of my peers. It lasted six months. I was on the negotiating committee as well as a strike captain. As painful as it was, it was also galvanizing. Many of our leaders grew out of that strike. In 2004, I was elected both local president and second national vice president of the national union. I became more and more involved in the union and I decided that I wanted to go to the Cornell Union Leadership Institute. I learned so much about the labor movement. It was terrific and I made a lot of wonderful friends and had really wonderful mentors along the way.
When I was first elected president of AFTRA, almost immediately we went into a war with SAG. It had been brewing over cable TV and our 25-year practice of joint negotiations for our mutual national contracts. It was an extremely difficult time. But later, new leadership was elected at SAG and President Ken Howard and his colleagues were very supportive of a merger between our two unions. There had been two failed attempts in the last 10 years and we all knew if we tried again we had to be successful. I had always been a supporter of merging and was happy to engage in this new effort. We set up the presidents’ forum, which was a very high-level small group of officers and appointed people. I don’t think it was more than maybe six on each side. And we had a number of meetings and one of the things that came out of it was that I suggested that we do a listening tour. Ken agreed, and we did listening tours for six months. We did 22 meetings and we went to eight cities. We made sure that we invited people who opposed merger. We made sure that we covered all of the various categories of work because AFTRA was a much larger spread of the industry. So we made sure that all of them were in these meetings. And we had a format with the same questions for each meeting. It was critical that we met with both elected leaders and rank-and-file because we really wanted everyone’s buy-in. The listening tour was a powerful component in the development of the merger. The merger process itself took almost two years. We just kept trying to build bridges and trying to build alliances and trying to build understanding. And I think we did a really good job. And we got it through the national board. We got the whole plan approved and then we started to campaign for the vote. Once again we did local visits, which helped enormously in getting such a big yes vote. It passed overwhelmingly – over 86 percent in AFTRA and 83 percent in SAG, with more than 50 percent of all eligible voters participating. I am very proud of the work that we did. There have been some big bumps along the way. Transitions are never easy. The union is still building its new identity. But I know we created a union that can fulfill its mission to protect media and entertainment workers for many decades to come.
Miguel Santana: How did you learn your leadership skills?
Roberta Reardon: There were a couple of ways. Of course the Union Leadership Institute taught me tremendous skills and that was very important. I learned from watching my national and local president and people I worked with. I am very fortunate that I have been mentored by a number of people and that has made a gigantic difference. I realized that mentoring played a really significant role in my development. When I talk to people, I always say that one of the best gifts you can give is talk to somebody who is coming behind you because they need you. Another thing I learned very early on is that the way to be successful in this work is to make sure that you are constantly engaging people on the issues, not the personalities.
Miguel Santana: Is there a particular campaign or effort you led that you feel was really significant in building your union?
Roberta Reardon: After the failure of the second merger, we knew that we needed to save ourselves. We needed to organize more work. I began to really focus on organizing and really try to learn what organizing really means. We hired our first national director of organizing who made the case that we needed to start with a robust internal organizing campaign. So we sat down and devised a program: we started having house parties so that we could connect with our members who were actors on cable dramas. We did the same thing with singers and dancers. We did the same thing with broadcasters. We made sure that we understood what our work was and we understood what our strategy was. I think the problem a lot of unions have is that they develop strategy – but then they just tell the strategy to the rank-and-file members; they don’t engage them in it. When people are told things, they just sit back and say, “Fine…tell me when you get it done.” So I think that whole program of internal organizing and engaging people was really critical to our ability to grow.
Miguel Santana: How did this internal organizing eventually impact the union?
Roberta Reardon: It didn’t happen overnight and it was not elegant. AFTRA had a tradition that the day-to-day work of the union was done by paid staff. Our members tended to be passive. They received information. They didn’t make things happen. So when we started our internal organizing, at the beginning there was pushback, particularly from the staff. They felt like their turf was being invaded. But as we went along, people began to understand how much more we needed to do. As members engaged more, they really liked it and became empowered.
Miguel Santana: What is the secret to building a strong union?
Roberta Reardon: Transparency. I mean engaging with your members in an ongoing way that is personal and not manipulative. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in unions where people get into a committee and they are told that you only need to do this – and then they’re manipulated for a result. People are not stupid, and that can really backfire. And people will leave in droves; they don’t want to be treated that way. So it’s really important that members understand that leadership comes from them. Also, remember that union leaders should do what members want them to do. Leaders always say, “My door is open.” It better be open because the members elected you!
Miguel Santana: How do you inspire people?
Roberta Reardon: With humor. It’s the person that I am. I love talking to people. I love interacting with people. I love solving problems. I love using humor. I try to understand where others are coming from.
Miguel Santana: How do you identify leaders and train them?
Roberta Reardon: To find new leaders, look for the people who make others feel comfortable. Those are the people you need. Because they are the people that other people turn to. And they are not hard to find.
In my union I was accused of doing something called “Reardon-ing.” I would be in a meeting and somebody would have an opinion. Afterward, I’d say to that person, “I want to talk to you.” Pretty soon, they’d be running for the board. When I first got on the board in ‘97, I was told that my first job is to find my replacement. And I never forgot that, because none of us is irreplaceable and none of us can do this alone. We always need a deeper bench, a wider bench, a younger bench. So I’m always looking for people who might be interested. All of us old silverbacks are going to go away soon and we need to leave somebody in charge.
When I was president, I would find potential leaders and give them jobs, but not big jobs at first. “I want you to be an alternate on this committee. I want you to help with the labor day parade.” Assignments like that, to see if they step up and if they like it. I often recommended books and articles for people to read – even blogs. I often made sure that when we went to labor events, I might send one person who was newly elected. I made sure that it’s not always the same five people showing up at every chicken dinner.
I also have to model the behavior that I expect from others. I can’t yell at a committee and then tell them not to yell at others.
Finally, we need more women and people of color in the labor movement. There are far too many middle-aged white guys running everything and it’s only one perspective. We get strength from diversity. I tell people all the time that you can do far more than you think. Get some mentors and get some education and have a plan. And do it one step at a time. I never in a million years ever dreamed about being the president of my union. It never even occurred to me. It kind of happened. That’s kind of the best leadership when it happens when you are doing stuff. Be busy.
Miguel Santana: What advice would you give a new union leader about how to be successful?
Roberta Reardon: Make sure you have people who will disagree with you – and include them. It’s hard because the immediate response is that you want them out of the room. You are more authentic if you keep some of them in the room. You don’t want to have a shouting match but you want to be inclusive. Monitor yourself. Make sure you watch yourself. Make sure you don’t let leadership give you a big head. Don’t burn out. It’s really important as you go into leadership to build a base of support that actually supports you. You need two sets of friends. You need allies who will agree with you and support your program. You also need to have trusted friends. Those are people who are close to you who can give you bad news, who can say to you, “Roberta, you’re making a mistake here. Don’t do this; don’t do that; here is what I think,” and really talk to you privately. You really need people who can give you their honest opinion. And you really need to know the difference between allies and trusted friends because allies are not in that group. They are political supporters and you cultivate them and work with them and you support each other. Don’t ask them to be your trusted friend. You don’t have 15 trusted friends. You might have two or three. That’s really important. And respect yourself. Don’t lose your temper. You need to be firm but don’t be tyrannical. And everybody in the labor movement talks about burnout all the time and it’s really true, and part of it is because there’s always a fire, there is always something going on. The emergency of the day or the emergency of the week. You need to be able to look past that. What’s the goal? If the goal is strengthening your union through organizing, then don’t let this fire today divert you and take you off that path. Ask yourself where are we going to be in five or ten years?
Miguel Santana: What has changed in the labor movement since you became a leader, and how has that changed what a leader needs to do?
Roberta Reardon: One thing that has changed is social media. We are much more connected and it’s not just social media, it’s all about communication. Smartphones have completely changed our world. There used to be a time when I had an answering machine. If there were no messages, I was on my own and that was great! I could actually be creative in that space. Now you are on duty 24/7. People go on vacation and they take the leash with them. And it changes the dynamics of how you relate to people. So the fires that you have to put out are in that phone. You’ve got to be on call all the time. Then there is social media. You have to be aware of all of that. It’s changed the way people get information; it’s changed their expectations for their leaders. And instead of being able to develop a thoughtful response to a problem, people expect you to do it instantly. That’s not a particularly a good way to do it unless you have a real communication strategy in your head. People also read comments on the Internet and think they’re true. Somebody can post something on Facebook and everybody goes, “Oh my God, music is going to be dead by the 25th century!” I mean whatever it is, you have to combat that and that’s really difficult. The labor movement is very reactive. We don’t write the checks. The company makes the money and we get part of it. But technology has put us back on our heels quite a bit. It has made it hard to be ahead of stuff.
Miguel Santana: What would you change in the labor movement if you could?
Roberta Reardon: First of all, I would have more women and people of color in position of importance. All the way down the line. I think it would make us a stronger group of organizations. Diversity really is strength and monolithic is not. I also think that unions need to seriously consider how they can consolidate for the future. As painful as some of the mergers have been in transition, I know that we have put our members in a stronger position than by having little itty-bitty fragments of unions representing the same workers. Where’s the power? That’s not to say that you just jam everybody into one union and be done with it. This is much more nuanced than that, but if we are going to compete with multinational corporations, we need to be able to build power of our own, whether it is with one union or with a confederation of various sectors.
Miguel Santana: How is SAG-AFTRA benefiting from the film and TV tax credits in New York State?
Roberta Reardon: Oh my God, it’s off the charts. New York is now a television town unlike any other time since TV began. And that is directly related to the incentives. The thing about tax incentives is that they actually put the money in the coffers. Yes, there’s a lot of taxes that producers don’t end up paying, but they create jobs. They create enormous numbers of jobs and those people all pay taxes so for every dollar that is incentivized, there are five dollars that are made.
Miguel Santana: Are you familiar with the Empire State Music Production Tax Credit bill?
Roberta Reardon: I’m in complete support of it. I just don’t how much of it is being advertised.
Miguel Santana: Do you see an opportunity to work together to make it a law?
Roberta Reardon: Absolutely. I think that the other entertainment unions are very cognizant of how much those tax incentives have changed the work and the case can be made that Local 802 should benefit as well.
Miguel Santana: March is Women’s History Month. Do you have anything to say that speaks to your experience of leadership as a woman, or any advice to young women who are entering the field of union leadership?
Roberta Reardon: Thank you for asking the question. While advances have certainly been made since the feminist movement took to the streets in the 1970s, like many other areas of American life, women are still not well represented in the higher offices of the labor movement. The glass ceiling exists in labor too. I was one of the very few women who served as national union presidents. That said, I am happy to say that I have worked with wonderful female leaders throughout my labor career, many of whom played an important role in shaping my own leadership. It was often their examples of courage and tenacity and their offers of friendship and guidance that encouraged me to pursue higher office and to take stands that were certainly challenging and often difficult.
It is critical that young women understand that they are needed in labor leadership. Diversity is one of our strengths as a movement and we must do all we can to encourage all of our members to engage in the work of the union – and that includes running for office.
Mentoring played an invaluable role in my own development and I always encourage other leaders to take their own mentoring opportunities very seriously. Of course this applies to all leaders, no matter their gender! We all need to find our replacements. Helping to groom the next generation of leaders – including shop stewards, convention delegates, negotiation committee members and union presidents – has to be a part of our daily lives. To young women I always say, “Look for opportunities to grow. Look for educational opportunities. Engage with other women activists. Above all, stay engaged and keep looking for the next challenge. Not only will you find fulfillment, but you will make our labor movement and our world stronger and more vibrant.”
Miguel Santana: Is there anything that you would like to add to this interview that maybe I didn’t cover and perhaps you would like to close out with?
Roberta Reardon: First of all I want to thank you. I think that I’ve been very fortunate in my union leadership experience. I’ve had a tremendous amount of support all over the place and it’s been very positive. It’s such a critical time in this country. People are having such a hard time making ends meet. The political climate of this country is so divided and I think the labor movement really is an important part of changing that. I always tell people that I’m a professional actor but I could never have done it without being part of a union. I would never have been able to make a living without my union. It really supported me in every way. There’s too much competition and employers have too much power. I would’ve been nickel and dimed to death, and certainly not have retirement and healthcare. But it’s more than just that. It’s the respect of having a voice at work, of being able to go into a meeting and say, “On the set, I worked until midnight and had to be back at 6 a.m. I couldn’t do it; my union took care of that.” And that just empowered me as a human being. When people yell about unions and the “lazy teachers” and all of that, I tell them that unions are an important part of the fabric of our country and we need to strengthen them and not weaken them. This idea that workers are by nature greedy and lazy – it’s insane. American workers are the most productive workers in the world and they deserve better. And the labor movement has the opportunity to do that. So, it’s been a pleasure to speak to your readers and I hope that I can continue to make a difference for as long as I can.