The actors in Ellie Harvie’s union count on commercials to pay their bills. 

But for more than 13 months, they’ve barely been called to make any. 

Harvie, the president of the B.C. wing of  the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, or ACTRA,  is one of thousands of unionized Canadian actors locked in a labour  dispute with some of the country’s biggest advertising agencies. 

The actors, some of whom depend on income  from commercials, have been unable to work on ads for some of Canada’s  largest brands, including Canadian Tire and the federal government. 

“I have actors coming up to me saying they just want to work,” said Harvie.

The dispute is made more  complicated by the fact the two parties have radically different  versions of how negotiations fell apart, or how to fix them. 

The only thing the parties do agree on is  that it has gone on far too long, leaving thousands of working  performers without a crucial source of cash. 

“This has been a tough haul,” said Eleanor Noble, national president of ACTRA.

A breakdown, then finger pointing

The trouble began in April 2022 when  negotiations between ACTRA and the Institute of Canadian Agencies, or  ICA, reached an impasse. The institute is an umbrella group for 16 of  Canada’s largest advertising, marketing and public relations agencies.

Commercial actors are the original gig  workers. They might work a score of projects for different companies in a  given year, all at different workplaces. 

Because of that, their collective  agreements aren’t negotiated with individual advertising agencies.  Instead, ACTRA negotiates at a central table with the ICA and the  Association of Canadian Advertisers. 

The result is the National Commercial Agreement, a 244-page collective agreement that determines how union actors are paid and treated. 

Last year the ICA walked away from those negotiations. 

ICA and ACTRA disagree on virtually every part of what happened next — and even on what to call their fight. 

ACTRA says the ICA member agencies have locked out their members and denied them work. 

Noble said the ICA wanted provisions in  their National Commercial Agreement that would give agencies the option  of hiring non-union workers. 

“They claim that they want to  be more competitive in the market and hiring non-union is better for  them to save money because they’re so expensive. I think it’s a shame,”  said Noble, herself a working actor. 

Noble said the loss of that commercial work  hit many ACTRA members hard. Some make their living off commercials,  she said, while other TV and film actors count on it to supplement their  income between other productions.

“Some people live solely off of doing commercials and they make a terrific income,” Noble said. 

Scott Knox, the executive director of the  ICA, agrees actors are suffering. But he says it is ACTRA and not his  organization that forbid those performers from working on ICA  productions.

“This is not a lockout by the ICA. This is a lockdown by ACTRA,” Knox said. 

Knox said the ICA did not ask for the  ability to opt out of using union workers nor did they propose a wage  cut. He says it actually offered an increase of eight per cent. 

A growing pool of non-unionized actors

Knox says the root of the dispute is in the large and growing world of non-union commercial acting work. 

In the early 2000s, Harvie says, most acting work in British Columbia was unionized. 

But since then, a growing number of  American companies — the province’s biggest customers — began to hire  non-union actors to make commercials that played in the United States.  Those companies are not part of the National Commercial Agreement.

The solution agreed to by all parties was a  2008 amendment to the national agreement. Under that amendment,  American agencies producing their commercials in this country could hire  ACTRA members without signing the agreement. The intent was to let  ACTRA members benefit from those lucrative contracts. 

But ACTRA says some Canadian companies have used that amendment to sidestep the collective agreement. 

Often those companies will use a payroll  firm with a foreign headquarters as a proxy. That allows them to hire  ACTRA talent without signing the NCA, which Knox argues means they  undercut Canadian firms that respect the agreement. 

“The whole premise of this agreement that  was set up in the 1960s was to give commercial advantages to the  agencies that would become partners of ACTRA,” Knox said.

It’s fine to exempt commercials produced by  agencies outside of Canada, he said. “But when you start offering that  as the route to Canadian advertising agencies, what you do is allow that  agency to pick and use whether it uses ACTRA or not.”

Instead, Knox said the current system means his member agencies are actually at a material disadvantage. 

“What they have done is they have blocked us from being able to use the backdoor that they created,” Knox said. 

How big a loophole?

ACTRA says it is true some Canadian brands  have managed to use that exemption unduly and there is a growing sector  of non-union commercial work in Canada. 

But it says the number of companies that  have taken advantage of that loophole is far smaller than what Knox  suggests. They also say it is not true that the ICA proposed any  measures to close that loophole or that they offered a salary increase  to ACTRA performers. 

In January, the parties met again at the bargaining table in an effort to break the deadlock, without success. 

Carol Taverner, an ACTRA spokeswoman, said  it exchanged written proposals with the ICA where that group continued  to request the ability for its member agencies to work with both union  and non-union performers. 

Harvie said the union’s worry is that  agreeing that ground will push down workers’ salaries and make  conditions even more precarious. 

She estimates most commercial acting work  in British Columbia today is not unionized. But commercials remain  important for her members and are an even more important source of  income in Toronto and other acting markets in Eastern Canada. 

“In B.C., there’s now a huge pool of  talented, non-union people. What’s happening in Toronto is that there’s  this huge pool of non-union talent. And producers are saying we can just  pay them whatever we want,” Harvie said. 

“If you want to work just commercials, there is a non-union world.” 

Harvie said her branch has tried to  persuade more non-union actors to join ACTRA. Previously, non-union  performers in B.C. could work on ACTRA sets by purchasing a day pass. 

Last year, ACTRA introduced a rule  requiring those actors to join the union after buying three passes,  Harvie said. She said they added 500 new members in December alone. 

Today, many are still looking for work. 

“I think the approach form the ICA to this  has been laughable. It has been clear from day one that they had one  intention and it was busting the union.”

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 13, 2023 at 11:41

This item reprinted with permission from   The Tyee   Vancouver, British Columbia
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