With the Screen Actors Guild’s election season in full swing, the renewed push for a merger between SAG and AFTRA has become the dominant issue in the guild’s upcoming board election.

Ron Perlman, one of the higher-profile candidates seeking a board seat, sent out a missive Friday to the 70,000 members in the Hollywood branch as part of the Unite for Strength campaign for a SAG-AFTRA merger. Unite for Strength and its allies in New York and other branches are aiming to increase their narrow majority of between 55% and 60% of the seats on the national board.

The rival Membership First has highlighted its merger stance as being far different from UFS in calling for an actors-only union excluding broadcasters, DJs, journalists and recording artists. Perlman’s missive blasted that stance.

“Unite for Strength is talking straight,” it said. “Membership First is playing with words. UFS has always believed actors are stronger working together — that’s why we’re taking action to unite SAG and AFTRA in a true merger. One union will STOP employers from dividing our work, protect our Pension & Health plans, and give actors more bargaining power.”

SAG members have voted against an AFTRA merger twice before, most recently in 2003. About 40,000 actors belong to both unions.

With SAG and AFTRA sharing jurisdiction for work done in primetime TV, Membership First is also insisting that any merger plan work out how the separate SAG and AFTRA health and pension plans will be run under a merger.

Ballots for the board election were mailed to SAG members last week, with the results scheduled to be announced Sept. 23.

Perlman’s message accused Membership First of being deceptive in terms of its assertions of supporting a merger, since AFTRA’s leadership has said that it won’t agree to a merger that excludes any of its 70,000 members.

“After years of attacking AFTRA, they now want you to believe they

support merger — but here’s the truth: Their merger plan is no merger at all,” it said. “MF’s approach is really just another attack on AFTRA. They want to break the union apart and take only the 50,000+ actors. AFTRA has made it clear it will NOT accept this.”

UFS has emphasized that the rancor between SAG and AFTRA during the last round of contract negotiations, when Membership First controlled the SAG board, led to separate negotiations with the majors between the two unions. SAG’s talks were prolonged for more than a year, allowing AFTRA to cut a deal and expand its coverage of primetime skeins that would otherwise likely have been done under SAG contracts.

The two unions have since repaired their relationship and are scheduled to jointly face off with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on Sept. 27 on the primetime-feature master contract, which expires June 30.

“If Membership First is elected and attempts their ‘plan,’ we will absolutely return to the broken relationship between SAG and AFTRA that caused so much harm in the first place,” the United for Strength missive warned. “Their plan won’t just fail, it will make things far worse. It will end cooperation between the unions and give our employers a huge advantage. UFS will lead the way to one union.”

Membership First remains narrowly in control of the Hollywood division and is running a slate of 29 candidates while endorsing four independents. Unite for Strength is running 35 candidates in Hollywood.

Membership First released a seven-minute campaign video Monday night on its web site at www.membershipfirst.blogspot.com that detailed its concerns about merger and called the UFS merger plan “reckless and irrresponsible.”

The video also slammed UFS over last year’s feature-primetime contract, dubbing it “one of the worst in SAG history,” particularly on new-media terms such as the lack of residuals on streaming of pre-1974 TV and pre-1971 films.