SAG’s toppers have launched their push to persuade the guild’s 120,000 members to give them permission to divorce AFTRA.

In an email last week, leaders of the Screen Actors Guild asked for a yes vote on ditching the guild’s 27-year-old Phase 1 joint bargaining agreement with AFTRA after a “frustrating” effort to change the pact that’s lasted more than a year.

“Phase I isn’t working for SAG members now,” said prexy Alan Rosenberg, secretary-treasurer Connie Stevens and national exec director Doug Allen. “We need to start over with a clean slate, to negotiate a new joint strong bargaining relationship with AFTRA, to make sure we get fair new-media compensation for actors.”

SAG’s beef with AFTRA stems from the latter’s refusal to reduce its 50-50 participation on the negotiating committees for film-TV and on commercials — despite accounting for less than 10% of the earnings. In addition, SAG complained that AFTRA has been offering producers cheaper contracts in basic cable with up to 15 free exhibition days; it also cited last year’s six-year renewal agreement for Nickelodeon, which allows for free Internet streaming.

“These problems are made worse by the fact that AFTRA has refused to share contract information with SAG despite our mutual obligation to do so under the Phase I joint bargaining agreements and other resolutions binding both unions,” the letter said.

The letter, however, also left the door open for a SAG-AFTRA merger. The unions tried to merge in 1999 and 2003, but both combos were voted down by SAG members.

“Our best chance for uniting all actors in one union will comes if we work out our differences with AFTRA, not if we let AFTRA ignore them,” it said.

SAG’s board approved the measure seeking a split from AFTRA on Jan. 12, with ballots to be sent out Feb. 15 and due back by March 31. The American Federation of Television & Radio Artists has condemned SAG’s move as “divisive, destructive and clearly not in the best interest of performers in either union” and blasted its proponents as “radical.”

SAG has 120,000 members while AFTRA has 70,000. About 40,000 thesps are dual cardholders.

Should SAG members approve the referendum, the guild would be able to act in accord with a recent resolution passed by its board in three areas: SAG would move to bargain on all contracts covering actors; bargaining committees would be revamped to reflect each union’s earnings in that sector; and neither union could lowball contract terms unless both agreed to do so.

Should AFTRA not comply, that would open the door for each union to negotiate its new film-TV contract separately with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. The current pact expires June 30.

The start date for the SAG-AFTRA talks has not been set, but fears have arisen that SAG may strike since it is more closely aligned with the Writers Guild of America than any other Hollywood union and its members have been supportive of the writers throughout their 12-week strike.

The move by SAG’s national board to send out a referendum was approved solely by the Hollywood reps, who have about 60% of the board seats. The initiative to end Phase I has been opposed by New York and regional reps, who tend to take a far more moderate stance.

In response to the letter, New York SAG president Sam Freed said, “The members that I talked to are astounded that SAG wants to sever our relationship with AFTRA, particularly before negotiations.”

New York board member Sue-Anne Morrow predicted the measure will lose.

“I have no doubt that Doug Allen will put a lot of effort, and a lot of the members’ dues money, into selling this plan to the members. I also have no doubt that the members are going to vote no on this referendum. Our members are far too smart to go along with anything that will destroy Phase 1 and pit us against AFTRA in all of our most important contract negotiations in 2008.”