EXCLUSIVE: Partisan bickering and factionalism have led to “crippled leadership” at SAG-AFTRA and an “unfair election process” created by the union’s two rival parties, according to Shaan Sharma, a candidate for the local and national board of directors. He’s calling on the rival factions to “put aside their differences” for the good of the members and the union.
It’s a sentiment Deadline has heard repeatedly from members and candidates alike in the run-up to Thursday’s election.
Sharma, who had to pay $2,801 out of his own pocket to have his email (read it in full below) sent to the L.A. members, said he wanted to run as an independent, but after meeting with both camps – Unite For Strength, which supports incumbent president Gabrielle Carteris, and Membership First, which is backing Esai Morales – he decided, reluctantly, that he had no chance of being elected without joining one of their slates. So he opted for Membership First.
But both parties, he wrote, “are entrenched in party politics. It may be totally understandable given their individual histories, but it’s toxic for the rest of us, because we’ve ended up with a leadership culture that puts party power above the needs of the members. It’s counter-productive and embarrassing. We’re seeing it in the press. Our employers are seeing it. It’s enough to turn you off and make you not want to get involved.
“This sad state of internal conflict has led to crippled leadership; leadership that hasn’t made us feel like the family we are, where we don’t feel personally connected to our union, or responsible for it,” he wrote. “It’s partly why we’re not better off five years after the merger that was supposed to make us stronger. Or why we’re constantly playing catch-up with our contracts, skating to where the puck is instead of where it’s going to be. Or why SAG-AFTRA is slow to respond to changes in technology or the market.
“Many of our members are scared, struggling, tempted to do non-union jobs, and some are currently betraying our union by working non-union jobs out of desperation and frustration. How can our leaders demand loyalty, solidarity, and sacrifice from our members if they can’t even put aside their differences to lead us effectively?”
Here’s his letter in full:
Hi Everyone. My name is Shaan Sharma. I’m not running for President of our union. I’m just a first-timer running for local and national board. But I wanted to share something with you that I believe is worth the $2,801.85 it cost me to send this, even though most of you who were going to vote have already voted, and as for the rest, you probably threw out your ballot or lost it.
I want to tell you what I’ve discovered running for a board seat in this election, because we’ve got serious internal issues to address together and we should talk about them. And as annoyingly long as this email is, it’s less annoying than struggling to make a living as an artist, #CanIGetAnAmen?
I’m sure many of you are wondering why we have two political parties within our union, Unite for Strength (UFS) and Membership First (MF), and what this division is all about. You may be wondering who you should believe and vote for. Should you do as either says and vote along party lines? You might even be wondering who these people are that are in positions of leadership and how they got there. How does someone end up on these ballots and in these pamphlets, anyway?
I’ll tell you how I got here. It’s so random. I wasn’t interested in union politics. I didn’t ask for this, but now I really recognize the value of my participation. And yours, actually. I need your help, and by “I” I mean we. And by “we” , I mean our union. Our union needs your help. Like, stat.
For the first eight years of my union membership, I thought of SAG-AFTRA like I do AT&T, like a utility, like I just saw the logo on my checks. I didn’t know you could actually go there and do stuff or why I’d want to. And, honestly, I’m now blown away by what we already have available to us and what is possible. We have an organization with tons of resources and hundreds of employees whose sole purpose is to help us succeed as artists.
I’m just a working actor like you guys and an educator who’s been volunteering his time at SAG-AFTRA for the last two years. I wrote an article in 2015 for Backstage called “Stand Up for Your Union”. Apparently, that article got the attention of some of our SAG-AFTRA staff in LA. I was invited into small group meetings with our National Executive Director, David White, to help with the CORI, the Commercials Organizing and Recapture Initiative. The CORI is SAG-AFTRA’s effort to bring back non-union commercial work under union contracts. I’m all for that, so I got involved.
As many of you know, I’ve spent the last ten years as a session director for many of the top commercial casting directors in town, where I’ve had the pleasure of putting thousands of you on tape over the years, doing my best to get you called back and booked. So I was able to connect David and the CORI with my contacts in the commercial casting world.
Then I was invited to teach commercial classes by Kevin McCorkle at the SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles Conservatory for its 3500 members. Some of you didn’t even know it exists. Well, it does. It’s awesome. It’s a training arm of our union, with free classes on commercials, TV/film, improv, voiceover, social media, headshots, business, and soon stunts, singing, dancing, and social events. Last year I was invited to join the Conservatory Committee, where I’m now head of the commercial department.
As a result of my work for the conservatory, I was recently invited to help program Member Education events in the beautiful Cagney Boardroom at SAG-AFTRA HQ, where I bring in the best people I know in the business to teach a variety of cool things like Casting and Session Director panels and workshops with amazing pros on all sorts of topics. They’re all free and ongoing, and you should check them out.
Just spending time at our HQ, located at 5757 Wilshire Blvd, I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know, love, and work with our amazing staff, like Ilyanne, our LA Local Executive Director, Serena, who is our Associate Executive Director, who I think is one of the best things to happen to SAG-AFTRA in a long time, their amazing team like Jacqueline, Jesse, Charity, and Rio, Shaine, our new commercials organizer who is our champion for those wanting to bring back commercial work into our union, and many others.
I started seeing other areas where I could try to help out and now I’m involved in a dozen initiatives, including: bringing casting director and representation showcases and workshops into our union as a service offered to members, creating a welcome protocol that introduces new members to working members, helps activate them and take advantage of all the ways our union can help them succeed, laying the groundwork for collaborative table reads with the Writers Guild, compiling all the deals, discounts, benefits, and resources that come with your union membership into one easy place that you can check before you buy anything, building a new studio at HQ to expand the campus of the Conservatory into two locations for the first time, making those studios available to you for self-taping and rehearsal, and more.
Can you see why we need your help? That’s just MY stuff.
All of this is volunteer, by the way. No one gets paid except staff. No one you’re electing is making a dime off their service.
Doing all this work put me on people’s radar, I guess, because leaders of both political party factions, UFS and MF reached out to me to run for the boards in this election. UFS wanted me to run with them for the Local Board, and MF wanted me to run with them for Local and National Board. I was so honored and appreciated their invitations so much.
But I’ve been able to do so much without being on the boards or in “parties” , so I didn’t know why I should run. I looked into it. Turns out that some changes that are important to me can only be made at the board level, like moving more union resources into creating and funding member services that help us work and grow as performers. That’s what we all really want, right? We want our union to help us in any way it can to book work so we can make a living with our art and earn crucial benefits.
I didn’t know much about these two parties, so I endeavored to learn about them. I was invited to meetings at Gabrielle Carteris’s house for UFS and Patricia Richardson’s house for MF. It was mind-blowing. I mean, these are amazing women who I grew up watching on TV. There were incredible artists at both meetings. I was like, “Why on earth are these artists divided?”
I can tell you that after six months and many hours in conversations with leaders of both parties trying to understand, I just feel compassion and sadness. Almost all their beefs with each other stem from the merger of SAG with AFTRA and how that was handled or the Commercial Strike of 2000, when some of you weren’t even born yet.
UFS wanted the merger and got it done. MF didn’t want the merger, or at least how it was done. People in both parties will tell you with such passion why the other party was so wrong and the terrible things they did before or after. It’s so unfortunate. I honestly believe the members of both were all doing their best and just disagreed on strategy.
But the same people who were in positions of leadership back then are still the ones in power today, in both parties, and they are entrenched in party politics. It may be totally understandable given their individual histories, but it’s toxic for the rest of us, because we’ve ended up with a leadership culture that puts party power above the needs of the members. It’s counter-productive and embarrassing. We’re seeing it in the press. Our employers are seeing it. It’s enough to turn you off and make you not want to get involved.
But I had to get involved. I’m passionate about making us feel the value of our union membership every day. I wanted to run as an independent, but here’s the next challenge I ran into. These two parties have made it so that it’s almost impossible to get elected without running on one of their “slates”. What’s a slate?
Well, you see, as a candidate you can pay, like I just did, to have SAG-AFTRA send out campaign literature by mail and email, but it’s expensive, and most of us can’t afford to spend that kind of money individually just to get elected to a non-paying position. But it costs the same to send out an email or pamphlet with a bunch of candidates on it, so these groups have a huge marketing advantage. Unless you’re a star or wealthy, you really can’t compete…all for a chance to make a positive difference and serve your union.
I had to decide whether to run as an independent anyway and hope that enough of you remembered and appreciated that Indian guy who runs some of your commercial auditions to vote me into office, and spend time and resources and call in favors to get the word out. Or I could join a slate and have a much better chance of being elected without so much time and personal expense. I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my whole summer for an ill-advised, foolish, and misguided indie attempt. Which is what I was told it would be. By everyone.
The leaders of both parties told me that I really needed to choose a slate if I wanted a chance to serve, but, and this was very meaningful to me, that they would welcome me in the board room regardless of how I got there. They both made me feel that I could be a valuable addition to union leadership.
I have a few friends in UFS, and they know where my heart is: that my devotion is to what’s best for the members. I would have the chance to learn more about the MF community as part of their slate, and hopefully be a bridge between the two groups. And, if I wanted the chance to make the biggest difference I can while I have the time in my career to serve, then I might as well go for the one that would give me a shot at the Local and the National Board.
And Jane Austin, our Local President, is loved by our staff, is the Co-Chair of the Conservatory, and I respect her leadership. She’s MF, and warmly invited me to run on their slate. So I agreed. I told her I was just running on a slate for election purposes, but that I’m not a partisan person. She generously respected that.
So here I am now, you guys. I have already begun to get attacked in person and online simply because I’m on a piece of paper next to the legendary Martin Sheen instead of the handsome Jason George. And the President of our union, Gabrielle, sent us emails saying “Don’t vote for Membership First!” But I have nothing to do with any of that past drama, and here she is, someone I respect, who doesn’t know me or my heart, telling you guys not to vote for me. That’s really cool. Loving that.
Our member leaders of both parties have created and sustained a culture, unintentionally I believe, where anyone just wanting to be proactive and try to help solve our massive problems is forced to choose between two warring factions, and suddenly inherits an army of enemies just for doing so. That is obviously absurd. We’re all on the same side. We didn’t merge only to be divided again within our one union. We should be strategizing about how to deal with our union’s challenges, not each other. Many of you would be turned off from getting involved because of this toxic environment, and that is really what is unacceptable. We should all feel welcome to serve, not scared to.
This sad state of internal conflict has led to crippled leadership; leadership that hasn’t made us feel like the family we are, where we don’t feel personally connected to our union, or responsible for it. It’s partly why we’re not better off five years after the merger that was supposed to make us stronger. Or why we’re constantly playing catch-up with our contracts, skating to where the puck is instead of where it’s going to be. Or why SAG-AFTRA is slow to respond to changes in technology or the market.
Many of our members are scared, struggling, tempted to do non-union jobs, and some are currently betraying our union by working non-union jobs out of desperation and frustration. How can our leaders demand loyalty, solidarity, and sacrifice from our members if they can’t even put aside their differences to lead us effectively?
We have to hold ourselves and our member leaders responsible for that, right? I mean, who else is accountable for it? It’s not our staff’s fault. The future of SAG-AFTRA is in our hands, the members. And as the saying goes, you get the leadership you deserve. So we have to show up and participate.
Less than 16% of our members voted on the theatrical contract. Think about that. And let’s wait and see how many of us vote in this election. We can do better, you guys. We need to heal the divide and act with unity. That’s my humble request. Even though it’s overwhelming, I’m asking you, the member reading this, to take responsibility for the way things are and make service to our union part of your identity as a union member. Every day I hear people say, “What is SAG-AFTRA doing about this or that?” Man, you’re talking about you. YOU are the union. WE are the union. It’s not UFS’s union or MF’s union. It’s OUR union, yo.
So, here’s what I am asking you to consider as part of my union and artistic family: Our current member leaders have sacrificed so much time and energy to fight for what they thought was right. Let’s appreciate them and their history of service and seek their counsel and wisdom and experience. But we also need new, clear-headed leaders like you and me, members who are non-partisan and just want to rock out solutions and who haven’t been sued or attacked or marginalized for years…yet, and who will work with anyone awesome regardless of how they had to navigate the unfair election process these two parties have created for us.
I don’t have all the answers, but I know we, together, can find the answers. We need each other’s talents and brilliance in a real spirit of solidarity to solve these problems. Roll up your sleeves and get involved. Reach out to our staff for volunteer opportunities by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or me, if you want. I’m easy to find on the Googs. I’ll do my best to help you find a place where you can make a difference, no matter how much time you have to contribute or at what level. I call it, “Give a penny, take a penny.” Use our union and its resources to help yourself succeed as an artist while helping our whole community at the same time. That’s what it’s there for.
Let’s get our union back on track together. Let’s make it so that every SAG-AFTRA member feels called and welcome to be part of the solutions we so desperately need to win our fight against the market forces that are hurting our art forms, community, friends, and loved ones.
It’s our union. It’s time to act like we care.
Virtus Junxit Mors Non Separabit,