To merge or not to merge — that’s the key question facing Screen Actors Guild members with the SAG election season in full swing.

Even though merger isn’t actually on ballot, the renewed push for combining SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists remains the predominant issue in the guild’s upcoming board election, with results set to be announced Sept. 23.

Clint Howard, one of the higher-profile candidates seeking a board seat, sent out a missive this week to the members in the Hollywood branch as part of the Membership First campaign. The message blistered plans by the Unite For Strength faction, which has a narrow majority on the national board and made merger its signature issue, for rushing to combine the performers unions.

“It seems UFS wants us to sign an agreement before we even know what’s in it,” Howard said. “UFS has absolutely NO MERGER PLAN. UFS and its co-founder Ned Vaughn want to merge now and work out the details later.”

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. Howard noted in his missive that’s he’s been in SAG for almost 44 years and that he comes from a family of SAG members including his mother Jean, his father Rance and his brother Ron — totalling 170 years of SAG service.

“We’ve certainly benefited from SAG’s protections and hard fought for gains throughout the years,” he added. “It’s important that these traditional SAG policies, wages, working conditions and benefits continue to be protected. It’s not enough to have nice slogans and wishful promises. SAG members need to have the facts before venturing into another merger attempt.”

SAG has 120,000 actors as members, and AFTRA has 70,000 members, including broadcasters and singers; about 45,000 thesps are dual members. SAG members have voted against an AFTRA merger twice before, most recently in 2003, despite assertions by merger supporters that a combined union will be more powerful and eliminate jurisdictional disputes.

“SAG is an Actors union,” Howard said. “Membership First believes merger should benefit ACTORS. Currently SAG actors have 100% control over how our union is managed. Merging with AFTRAs’ nearly 20% NON ACTOR members would reduce that control to only 80%.”

For its part, Unite For Stregnth’s latest message, from candidate Michelle Allsopp, accused Membership First of wanting to continue battling AFTRA, noting that SAG and AFTRA negotiated the primetime deal separately in the previous cycle.

“Your vote will decide whether actors can take control and stop employers from splitting our work, by uniting in a single powerful union – or if we will remain divided and go back to fighting each other, putting our future at risk,” she said. “Unite for Strength restored the bargaining partnership between SAG and AFTRA to create a united front for our upcoming contract talks. MembershipFirst voted against it.”

Allsopp also noted that Unite for Strength helped establish a forum this summer as a means to start working out the details on a merger. “MembershipFirst wants to attack AFTRA and break it apart,” she added.

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.

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.