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The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) Toronto is holding a “We Rise Up” rally today at Queen’s Park, calling on the Doug Ford government to help get the organization representing advertising agencies that locked them out more than two years ago back to the bargaining table.  

Since April 26, 2022, ACTRA’s 28,000 members have been locked out by the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA), a group that represents advertising agencies across English Canada. Over these past two years, voice and screen actors have experienced what ACTRA Toronto describes as an “unprovoked, unfair and unjust attack on some of the most precarious workers in our economy” that has cost union members “their jobs, their dreams, their hopes, and in some cases, their homes.”

The primary issue at the heart of the dispute is the ICA’s desire to freely use non-union talent. The previous contract — the National Commercial Agreement (NCA) — between ACTRA and the ICA allowed ads made for international markets to access non-union performers. The ICA would like this exception to apply to all of its member agencies, an outcome that could be catastrophic for union actors. 

According to the ICA, the group is seeking “one set of rules for everyone,” but that’s not how the union or performers with whom Class Struggle spoke see the issue. For union members, this is an existential fight. The ICA is attempting to remake the industry, replacing relatively stable unionized commercial work with a precarious and poorly compensated alternative. 

Union members won’t stand for it. Today’s rally is the latest episode in their fight. 

Locking Out Union Members To Opt Out

For 60 years, the National Commercial Agreement (NCA) has governed the terms and conditions of commercial advertisement production in Canada, setting out compensation rates, actor benefits and retirement contributions. Union members want to keep it that way. 

The status and nature of the NCA is somewhat more complex than a typical union collective agreement, however. Rather than a contract between an employer and a union, several entities are parties to the NCA. In simple terms, ACTRA represents the actors, the ICA represents the agencies that produce the ads, and the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) represents the companies whose products are being advertised. A central bargaining table and national contract allows the union to avoid negotiating multiple agreements with the many advertising agencies across the country.

After contract negotiations broke down in April 2022, the ICA declared the NCA “expired” and invalid, a status that both ACTRA and the ACA dispute. The latter two organizations have twice agreed to one-year renewals, but without the ICA’s client list, there is insufficient work for ACTRA members. 

In response to the ICA’s intransigence, ACTRA filed an unfair labour practice complaint at the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) shortly after talks ended, accusing the ICA of bad faith bargaining. The ICA characterized the union’s OLRB application as a “pressure campaign” and insisted on the need to “modernize” the NCA. 

The issues before the Board have only grown more complicated since. The ICA contends that the NCA is in fact not a collective agreement under Canadian labour law, and that ACTRA members are not employees or dependent contractors under the Ontario Labour Relations Act. In effect, the ICA is arguing that its history of contract negotiations with the union were entirely voluntary and that ACTRA members are not entitled to collective bargaining rights. 

As Kate Ziegler, a Toronto-based screen and voice actor and rank-and-file ACTRA member, explained to Class Struggle, the ICA’s proposals amount to union busting. 

Since 2007, the NCA has allowed agencies making ads for non-Canadian markets to access union talent without signing onto the contract — to “opt-in or opt-out” of the agreement. As the ICA sees it, this ‘small exception’ that originally allowed American agencies to use Canadian actors for ads in Canada, has grown and put agencies who’ve signed onto the NCA at a disadvantage.

When the NCA expired, the ICA advised agencies that they “may now use union and non-union talent in line with their client’s budgets or instructions.” 

The union argues that the ICA’s proposal to allow all agencies to opt in and out of the NCA at will is akin to busting the union. ACTRA contends that such an arrangement would compel many performers to work non-union and lose out on significant economic benefits and protections. 

As ACTRA Toronto put it on the two-year anniversary of the lockout: “Walking out on 60 years of productive collective bargaining to bully unprotected non-union performers into working without safety standards, benefits and industry standard terms and condition[s] is exploitation. The ICA’s actions are a stark reminder of the power imbalances that persist in the entertainment industry and serve as a call to action for greater solidarity and support for performers’ rights.”

Fighting The Race To The Bottom

During the Hollywood writers’ strike, studio executives received justified backlash for suggesting that they’d drag the labour dispute out until workers started losing their homes. Luckily that didn’t come to pass. Yet due to the commercial lockout in Canada, some ACTRA members are in fact losing their homes. 

Jason Bryden, an actor and ACTRA member of 23 years, spoke to Class Struggle about the impact the lockout has had on him personally. Prior to the lockout, Bryden was performing exclusively commercial work, which allowed him to maintain an acting career while being a “stay-at-home dad.” 

“I’ve had to sell my house [...] and now I’ve had to take commercial acting out of the income equation altogether.” As he recounted: “At the ripe old age of 52 with two kids — I’m a single parent five days per week — I’m now staring down the barrel of reinvention.”

For many Canadian screen and voice actors like Bryden, commercial work is a lifeline. Working actors in Canada frequently pair film and television work with spots in commercial advertisements. For actors like Bryden, commercials represented a large portion of their income prior to the lockout. As Bryden described his previous commercial work, “It was a great life until the taps were turned off two years ago.” Actors with similar stories have appeared in Canadian media reporting since the lockout first began. 

As Bryden further explained, the residuals actors previously earned from commercial spots were also a vital source of income. The NCA guaranteed that union actors received payment for every time an advertisement aired or used their likeness. Negotiated residuals also compensated for career consequences actors can face for being identified with a particular advertising campaign. “You may burn up your image in a McDonald’s commercial and not get a shot at another campaign,” Bryden said. Residual payments in part compensate for such losses. 

Allowing agencies to bypass the contract and utilize non-union talent could completely upend this system of compensation. As The Globe and Mail reported last year, the structure of residuals in the NCA could also be under serious threat in the future. 

Residuals aren’t the only forgone benefit when working non-union, however. ACTRA’s contract with the ICA also stipulates benefit and retirement contributions. Losing these contributions would be a further move toward what Bryden characterized as an employer attempt to gut union protections in the industry. 

“I think it’s a race to the bottom, and I don’t think it’s a new fight. But it’s our responsibility to maintain humanity in the face of a type of capitalism that just makes demands of people and doesn’t give much back,” he said. 

Boycotting The Brands 

In its press release announcing the breakdown of third party mediation, ACTRA characterized the ICA’s proposals as amounting to a “50 to 60 per cent reduction in performer pay” compared to the NCA. There continues to be considerable disagreement about the nature of each side’s proposals. 

The ICA continues to maintain that it is ACTRA who is preventing its members from working with their advertising agencies. But without a renegotiated union contract, working for ICA member agencies would amount to working outside the NCA and scabbing on fellow union members. It would also ostensibly mean that the ICA could set the terms and conditions of work unilaterally. 

Major corporate brands, including Visa, Rogers, H&R Block and Canadian Tire, among others, use the services of agencies who were previously signatories of the NCA. In response, last March ACTRA and the broader Canadian labour movement called for a boycott of these brands. It seems most brands have chosen to continue to work with ICA member agencies, utilizing labour without union coverage. 

Corporations aren’t the only entities contracting for commercial advertising despite the lockout. Governments also purchase advertising production and therefore indirectly utilize commercial actors. According to Ziegler, the Government of Ontario has continued to contract with ICA agencies, ignoring the lockout and utilizing non-union talent. The union has also accused the federal government of extending the dispute by spending millions of tax dollars on commercial services through a Quebec-based agency now using non-union actors. 

As the union sees it, putting pressure on both corporate brands and governments will be necessary to get the ICA to bargain and to ultimately end the lockout. 

Organizing For Power 

As Ziegler emphasized to Class Struggle, actors are in many ways the original “gig workers.” “For 98 per cent of us, we’re moving from job to job all the time,” she said. The irony is that it was precisely the NCA and union protection that provided ACTRA members with the flexibility to maintain careers as performance actors, whether they were working exclusively in commercial advertisements or supplementing their income with commercial campaigns. 

Yet what the ICA is attempting to implement could further cement actors’ precarious status by undermining union protections and denying actors rights afforded to other workers under Canadian labour law. In this sense, the fates of Canadian commercial actors and workers struggling against precarious employment in other sectors are bound together. 

It’s precisely the recognition of this shared struggle as workers that has motivated rank-and-file members of ACTRA to organize, both to amplify their fight and to transform their own union in the process. 

Frustrated by a lack of communication from union leadership, activists within the union formed the Rank-and-File Caucus of ACTRA Performers. RCAP — in which Ziegler is active and serves as a steering committee member — has been working to increase member engagement and reform the union from the inside. Last year, RCAP ran a slate and successfully elected eight of its members to ACTRA’s Toronto Council. As Ziegler describes it, RCAP’s mission is to “dignify creative labour.” 

“We’re workers. We’re doing important jobs. We were asked to do it all through the pandemic, and for the 60 years that the collective agreement has been in place before that.” 

Through their rank-and-file strategy, RCAP is pushing for a member-driven union with open communication and bargaining practices. As Ziegler explained to Class Struggle, it’s precisely through organizing the membership that fights like that with the ICA can be won. “There’s been a growth of non-union work and so there’s been a growth of actors who are outside of the union. So we need to shift to an organizing model to compensate for that,” she said. 

Additionally, there is fear that artificial intelligence may pose a threat to commercial actors through the reproduction of their images or voices. “If you obliterate a collective agreement or disempower a union, you take away the ability of members to organize around the way technology impacts our jobs,” Ziegler remarked. To protect against these threats, union rights have to be maintained and the ICA needs to return to the bargaining table. 

With this in mind, the “We Rise Up” rally at Queen’s Park is demanding that the Government of Ontario no longer use non-union labour on its advertising campaigns and that the government help to bring the ICA back to the table. As well, the union wants to see the government lean on the large brands to help bring agencies back to the negotiations. ACTRA members will be joined by representatives from the Ontario Federation of Labour and other affiliate unions. 

Perhaps most notable has been RCAP’s efforts to connect ACTRA’s fight to those of other workers facing precarious employment. 

As Bryden remarked, “This rally is just the beginning and it’s exciting to be part of this movement.”

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