Source: ACTRA/Facebook

For over 500 days Canadian commercial actors unionized in the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) have been fighting a lockout by the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA), an organization of the country’s most established advertising agencies. 

“I’m now in a position where I’m very seriously at risk of losing my home,” one Toronto-based actor told CBC in August. 

“It’s been pretty devastating, not just in terms of a livelihood missing, but a career,” said another actor, who hasn’t booked a job since the lockout began. 

The lockout started in April 2022. ACTRA and the ICA were bargaining to renew the National Commercial Agreement (NCA), the collective agreement that’s been in place between performers and agencies for 60 years. The ICA offered proposals that would gut the agreement: a 60 per cent rate cut, elimination of retirement contributions and multi-employer benefit plans, and, most essentially, opening the door to using more non-union talent. When ACTRA rejected these terms, the ICA locked them out. 

Commercial work is not just small change for Canadian actors. With fewer options than their counterparts down south, most actors who choose to build a career here depend on commercial work to keep the lights on. Landing a successful campaign means residuals that help prop up actors in between jobs or while they do less lucrative but more rewarding theatrical work. Ads are also a major avenue for new actors to break into the industry. 

The ICA has tried to justify its blatant union busting by playing the underdog, just trying to level the playing field between themselves and agencies outside of the ICA. A loophole in a clause introduced to the NCA in 2008 has allowed new Canadian agencies that aren’t members of the ICA to have their pick of both union and non-union talent without having to sign on to the NCA, and the ICA wants the same freedom. If that happens they may as well throw out the NCA altogether. 

The obvious solution is to close this loophole rather than widen it. In Quebec, where a different organization represents ad agencies, that’s what they’re doing: getting more agencies to sign on to the NCA. ACTRA says they have made proposals to the ICA addressing the issue, but the ICA ignored them, opting for the lockout instead. 

In response, ACTRA filed a bargaining-in-bad-faith charge with the Ontario Labour Relations Board against the ICA and its agencies, and over 80 grievances. 

“It is clear the ICA never intended to successfully negotiate a renewal of the contract. It bargained in bad faith and is now engaged in an unlawful lock-out of ACTRA performers. The ICA’s strategy is to bust the union and we look forward to the Labour Board stepping in to correct this unlawful conduct and to properly compensate ACTRA and our members,” Marie Kelly, ACTRA National Executive Director and Lead Negotiator, said in a statement in May 2022. 

Since then the actors have been slowly starving. 

Making it as an actor has always been tough. According to ACTRA president Eleanor Noble, the average income of an actor is “way below the poverty line.” She continued, “I’m talking about those performers you see in movies, on TV series, and in commercials that aren’t household names.” 

Supporting actors, bit players, and background actors are just as necessary to film and television as the stars. Cutting off commercial work that helps sustain these actors threatens to push them out of the industry altogether. 

Talking to PressProgress, long-time voice actor Kate Ziegler warned, “I think the public needs to understand that the cultural sector of the country is under serious threat.”

This is part of the blind anarchy of capitalism. By pursuing their narrow self-interests, capitalists end up undermining the broader system, in this case, Canadian film and television. 

While the actors are struggling, the agencies under the umbrella of the ICA have no incentive to make a deal. They have continued to make ads using non-union actors. Without ACTRA protections, actors don’t get benefits, pension contributions, or residuals. 

To step up pressure against the ICA, in April of this year ACTRA launched a national consumer boycott of six major brands that use the ICA agencies. The plan was that by appealing to and picketing companies like Wendy’s and H&R Block, those companies would be shamed into pressuring the agencies into playing fair. While a letter-writing campaign to the Government of Canada succeeded in rippling out to the ad agency they use, Cossette Media, the other advertising clients have been far less responsive. 

The latest update in the conflict is that, as of September 22, mediation has officially failed. The mediator concluded, “the parties are simply too far apart on issues that are fundamental to each, and that the conditions are not ripe for compromise at this time.” And so, what options remain?

The ICA is unmoved and unbothered because they can continue to make money. No appeal in the world is louder than profits. The way workers win struggles is by shutting down production and stopping the cash flow. When the employer is using scab labour to get around a lockout, hard pickets are the only option left. This is not easy, of course, especially when the employer is 16 different ad agencies. It would require solidarity from crew organized in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. But the recent success of the Writers Guild of America strike in the U.S. demonstrates that solidarity is possible, it can shut down production, and it is how you win a labour struggle. 

If ACTRA looked for the will to fight, they would find it in their members. One anonymous actor said in a Reddit post, “I believe we have tactics and power that ACTRA hasn’t utilized.”

And according to Ziegler, “At a time when union members across North America are seeing the labour movement gaining new ground and taking a stand, there is a growing number of ACTRA members who want to fight, too.” 

Actors have already endured 17 months without work because they understand they are in a fight for survival, but they can’t wait in a holding pattern forever. The choice is escalate or back down.