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ACTRA rally in front of the Toronto offices of Leo Burnett on July 11, 2022. ACTRA says its actors have been locked out of lucrative work in commercial campaigns for nearly a year, allowing agencies to instead work with non-union talent.HO/The Canadian Press

Canada’s largest actors’ union, ACTRA, says Ottawa is prolonging a long-standing labour dispute with advertising agencies by spending tens of millions of dollars with a major creative marketing company – which the union says has locked out its members from commercial campaigns.

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists has been in a dispute with the Institute of Canadian Agencies since talks to renew their labour agreement collapsed in April, 2022. The Institute, which represents many agencies in the ad world, argues that this was a commercial contract, and that ACTRA is preventing its own actors from working with the agencies. That includes Quebec-founded Cossette, which has been the federal government’s agency of record since 2019.

The 28,000-member actors’ union, however, has described the contract under dispute as a collective agreement. It says its actors have been locked out of lucrative work in commercial campaigns for nearly a year, allowing agencies to instead work with non-union talent, which the union worries will lead to lower wages and working conditions for all.

Further frustrating the union and its members is that Ottawa is spending millions of tax dollars with Cossette as it mulls legislation to ban the use of non-union replacement workers, often derisively called scabs, in federally regulated businesses. At the end of January, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) said that 98 per cent of the $141-million the government spent on advertising the fiscal year prior to the dispute went to Cossette.

Last week, the procurement department told The Globe and Mail that it estimated Ottawa had spent $44.3-million with Cossette between April 1, 2022 and the end of December. This preliminary figure captures much of the time of ACTRA and ICA’s dispute, which began in late April.

The government wrapped up consultations on its anti-replacement-worker legislation last month and says it will table legislation by the end of the year. ACTRA has recently been pushing to expand the scope of such legislation, as it argues that Ottawa’s heavy spending with Cossette is extending the dispute.

The organizations resumed bargaining earlier this year, and both said they were unable to comment because of a media blackout during the process. But in an e-mail to ACTRA members this month obtained by The Globe, union president Eleanor Noble said it would bring forward a motion to a national Canadian Labour Congress meeting in May to press Ottawa to align its procurement policies with its potential labour legislation.

As the government is “enriching an anti-union firm that uses scabs and refuses to allow workers to have the protection of a union contract,” Noble wrote, she is asking the CLC to push Ottawa “to forbid the use of any scab labour, directly or indirectly through subcontractors, and further to seek to use only unionized goods and services.”

The labour dispute has upset the lives of many actors who depend on commercial work for some or all of their income, especially after the pandemic shifted the world of performance. Toronto-based ACTRA member Nadine Djoury pointed to the long shuttering of theatres, and shifting tides in TV and film, as already being difficult – “and now we can’t audition for many commercials,” she said.

“We want to work,” she added, “and we want to be compensated fairly for our work.”

Two other actors, whose identities The Globe is keeping confidential because they feared professional reprisal, described massive financial stress as commercial work dried up. They said they were infuriated at Ottawa’s spending with Cossette, given the replacement-worker legislation it’s considering for other industries.

One of the actors said the labour dispute could upend progress on diversity and inclusion in the industry, as many actors from less-privileged backgrounds would not be able to afford to wait out the situation.

Cossette won a three-year contract in 2019 to become the federal government’s agency of record, which has been extended through later this year. The agency did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The federal procurement office declined to comment on ACTRA and ICA’s labour dispute, or ACTRA’s proposal to expand anti-replacement-worker legislation. Hartley Witten, a spokesperson for Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, said in an e-mail that the scope of Ottawa’s proposed legislation only involved one specific section of the Canada Labour Code, and could not extend to ACTRA members.

Ottawa’s position does little to appease the acting community. “Does the government understand what’s happening?” Djoury asked. “I don’t know that corporate clients, when they’re choosing their advertisers, know what’s on the line.”

Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek appeared to be unaware of ACTRA’s dispute with Ottawa’s agency of record until a back and forth with NDP critic Gord Johns at the House standing committee on operations and estimates on Feb. 6. After Johns explained the situation, Ms. Jaczek said she had “no knowledge” of the dispute, the contract or even “who you’re talking about.”

ACTRA, the Institute of Canadian Agencies and the Association of Canadian Advertisers worked together under what they call the National Commercial Agreement for six decades. Renewal negotiations broke down last April, though ACTRA did sign a one-year extension with the Association of Canadian Advertisers last May.

Talks between ACTRA and ICA have been more fraught. The actors’ union has alleged that ICA’s proposals could harm working conditions and pay. Actors assert that ICA proposed some potential wage reductions of 60 per cent – but the agency association has staunchly refuted this, and told The Globe last year that it had proposed an 8-per-cent increase during bargaining that was rejected.

The labour dispute has also thrown the agency world into disarray, as campaigns have become difficult to plan and budget for without knowing who might appear. They may be hoping for the return of specific ACTRA-based talent for a campaign, for instance, but would still need to come up with alternate plans if the dispute is prolonged.

ACTRA primarily represents English-language actors in Canada; Quebec’s Union des artistes generally represents performers in that province.

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