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SAG-AFTRA Board Candidate Shaan Sharma Addresses “Toxic” Culture Of Union’s Politics As Election Looms

·8-min read

Ballots for the upcoming SAG-AFTRA election are in the mail, and once again, national board candidate Shaan Sharma has come under fire from members of the union’s Unite for Strength ruling faction. Two years ago, a fellow L.A. Local board member and Unite for Strength stalwart referred to him in an email as a “brown lackey” of the union’s opposition MembershipFirst faction, and “the epitome of brown boys who are Republican traitors to our race.”

“My personal experience is that the current ruling regime treats anyone who dares to speak up and question or criticize anything with contempt, aggression, exclusion, and retaliation,” Sharma writes in a lengthy message to the union’s members, in a letter attached to his official campaign statement on the SAG-AFTRA election site. “It’s how I’ve been treated, constantly. I never shared it with you in previous letters because I’m okay, and didn’t want to distract from the important issues and points I was making. But it has become clear to me that this mean, toxic, oppressive culture that I, and many others, have experienced is itself an important issue that must be addressed.”

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Sharma has been one of the most outspoken critics of the union’s current leadership in recent years. “SAG-AFTRA is a dictatorship,” he wrote two years ago while running successfully for a seat on the union’s L.A. Local board of directors. “The President has unchecked power if they control the National Board. Any blind spots of the President, become the blind spots of the entire union. And, from my experience on the inside, Gabrielle (Carteris) has been using the union and our communications department as her personal PR firm to consolidate power, build her own profile, and advance her own career interests instead of serving us, the membership, and especially the 95% of us who aren’t movie stars and TV series regulars.”

Sharma, who’s running this time for seats on the local and national boards, is a co-founder of Solidarity.us, a non-partisan grassroots community and online resource for SAG-AFTRA members that seeks to educate them – in lively and wonky detail – about the ins-and-outs of the union’s contracts and governance. Deadline has observed several of its meetings, held every Wednesday evening, which always begin with a reminder to participants to refrain from discussing union politics.

Recent sessions have included discussions about New Media residuals, the union’s Codified Basic Agreement, its set reps and field services, and the union’s various member categories.

On Tuesday – the day ballots were sent out – Michele Proude, SAG-AFTRA’s national vice president of mid-sized locals and a ruling party leader, accused Sharma of secretly using Solidarity.us as a stalking horse for MembershipFirst — a charge Sharma vehemently denies, noting that “She’s never once attended one of our meetings.”

“Secrets?” Proude wrote. “MembershipFirst has got them – In this election, the word ‘transparency’ has been weaponized by MembeshipFirst. But even as they preach transparency, they utilize DECEPTION to get what they want – a majority voice on the National Board. They once achieved majority in SAG by winning their own elections in L.A., but this time around their tactic is to simultaneously REACH their tentacles into the Locals outside of L.A. – actually recruiting candidates who promise to vote with them and their agenda – and DENY that is what they are doing.”

“Here’s how it works,” she wrote. “A member named Shaan Sharma spent all of Covid holding Zoom ‘book clubs’ — it was all very ‘innocent.’ His friend…would invite local leaders from around the country to a little chat to talk about their locals. When more savvy members called him out, he said, ‘This is not political, it’s EDUCATIONAL.’ They denied having any intentions of recruiting candidates to run against local leadership, and that it was all to help members learn more about SAG-AFTRA. All the while, in fact, Shaan was one of the search co-chairs for MembershipFirst manipulating and grooming new leaders across the country to do the bidding of MembershipFirst – a group that believes their ‘Hollywood majority local’ should have all the power because those outside of their local are just ‘hobbyists.’”

She ended her Facebook post by saying: “Manipulating local leaders and denying it = ‘transparency’ in the eyes of MembershipFirst. Please vote for trusted Local leaders and Fran Drescher/Anthony Rapp nationally.”

Drescher is running for president of the union to succeed Carteris on the Unite for Strength slate, and Rapp is her secretary-treasurer running mate. They’re opposed by presidential candidate Matthew Modine and secretary-treasurer candidate Joely Fisher on the MembershipFirst slate.

Sharma, citing numerous other instances in which he has been targeted by elected leaders from the Unite for Strength camp, said today in his latest message to SAG-AFTRA members that “No SAG-AFTRA member should have reason to fear their leaders. I just imagine what all the other members of that Facebook group were thinking watching their national leaders talk like that about another member, another board member of the union. Do you think they would feel comfortable speaking up in that environment or do you think they would fear being targeted themselves?

“We all know that our union is off-course. Almost all of our members are suffering. From my first letter back in 2017, I recognized that the political infighting was crippling our union, but I didn’t know then how political everything in our union had become. Not people with different ideas having normal friction on the path to compromise, but warring gangs in a zero-sum, take no prisoners, war over turf.

“One of the witnesses to this, who’s become the brother I never had, is the great Sean Astin, son of former SAG President Patty Duke, who wanted me to include this from him: ‘I think it’s outrageous that somebody who’s devoted as much time, energy, effort, and skill and passion and compassion and wisdom to the union as Shaan has to be treated in such a manner, to be harangued, and forced to defend his character against such unreasonable attacks. Everybody should have to validate what they’re doing when they’re operating in an influential way, and be subject to criticism, but this is just not okay.’” Astin is running for seats on the local and national board on the MembershipFirst slate.

“So here’s the thing,” Sharma writes in his latest message. “It’s a free country. People have every right to call you names and be mean or unfair to you. It’s sadly part of life and of politics. So I’m not sharing the following from a place of upset or anger. I feel very supported and encouraged by our members and union service has, and continues to, change my life for the better in ways I could have never imagined.

“However I am very, deeply concerned for the health of our union because of the way many of our union leaders behave and treat each other. It may not be illegal for our union to have a mean, oppressive, and immature leadership culture, but that doesn’t mean we have to settle for one. We can choose to elect leaders who disagree, and debate, and challenge each other with respect, instead of trying to destroy each other.

“In order for any organization to function properly, voices of dissent or critique are necessary, and good leaders welcome and value it, so the organization can see if it needs to correct itself. Those who value their own power and control over the proper functioning of an organization do not have an incentive to look for their errors, or worse, may try to hide them to save face, since they are responsible for the status quo, and it’s working for them, because they’re in power. But they may give in to the temptation to try to silence or eliminate their critics, to protect their reputation and maintain power.

“The problem is, if you try to attack, intimidate, or silence voices of dissent or critique, instead of listening to their concerns and addressing them, you risk either creating a chilling effect on speech, where people are afraid to speak up, or if they are not effectively intimidated into submission, you radicalize dissenters, who will find other ways to get their concerns addressed, usually with louder, or more creative, or more forceful means.

“Retaliation against dissenting voices is even more of an issue in our industry and our union because of the nature of our business and the constant power differentials involved. Performers, our members, are constantly living in fear and a state of powerlessness. Hence, we are so exploitable. We are constantly pressured to compromise our safety, our pay, our self-respect, and our integrity in the pursuit of a successful career. Many cave and do compromise.

“Performers are afraid to speak up in defense of themselves and others everywhere: in acting classes, in auditions, on sets, in meetings with agents, managers, directors, showrunners, writers, producers, casting professionals, and other industry professionals. No performer wants to do anything that could cost them work and jeopardize their dreams.

“The one place; the first and foremost place where our members must feel safe speaking up is within our own union. We own this union. This is our house. It exists to empower us. If we can’t feel safe to speak up in our own union, it’s no wonder we feel so powerless everywhere else.”

Election ballots will be counted on September 2.

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