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The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists held rallies in front of the Toronto offices of Leo Burnett, on July 11.HO/The Canadian Press

A months-long labour dispute between the Canadian actors’ union and a not-for-profit association representing some of the country’s largest advertising agencies appears to have no end in sight, leaving tens of thousands of commercial actors struggling to make ends meet.

Talks to renew a collective agreement fell apart April 26, when one of its three signatories, the not-for-profit Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA), allegedly walked away from the bargaining table. The National Commercial Agreement (NCA) dictates terms and conditions for actors, securing higher rates, retirement contributions and a multiemployer benefit plan. Unlike an ordinary contract, a collective agreement is bargained between a registered union representing multiple employees and the employer, rather than one individual.

The affected actors say they are being locked out from doing commercials with ICA’s lengthy list of clients, which include the Canadian government and corporations such as Walmart, Google and McDonald’s. Their union, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), has expressed concerns that this will open the door for advertising agencies to hire and underpay non-union actors for what are typically higher-end productions.

“It’s a pretty horrible feeling,“ said Matthew G. Brown, who has appeared in television shows Dark Matter and Nikita. Commercial work kept him afloat financially at the peak of COVID-19, he said, with between two and three auditions coming in each week. Since negotiations collapsed, he said he has been pushed to take less lucrative work with lower budget productions, and may have to find a second job.

“It sets a precedent that I feel like is already really prevalent in our society, which is that we don’t really as a society care about our art or where it comes from,” he added.

Prior to April, the National Commercial Agreement had been in effect for 60 years, held together by its three signatories: ACTRA, ICA and the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA). The contract, which must be renewed and ratified every few years, affects any ACTRA member (which has a membership base of 28,000) who does commercial work in Canada.

In May, the ACA and ACTRA agreed to a one-year extension of the agreement without ICA; it will be up for renewal in June, 2023. But without ICA’s client list, actors say, there hasn’t been enough work to go around. The ICA is disputing claims that union actors are being barred from commercial work with their clients, alleging instead that ACTRA is pushing its members away from those jobs.

Representatives from both ICA and the ACTRA told The Globe and Mail they would like to return to negotiations, but they appear to be at a stalemate.

ACTRA alleges ICA came to the bargaining table with proposals that would see wages reduced by 60 per cent, and that eliminated benefits and retirement plans. Scott Knox, chief executive officer and president of ICA, said those proposals were never discussed. According to him, negotiations broke down after ACTRA would not agree to an amendment ICA proposed. It would force foreign advertising agencies to become NCA signatories and follow the contract’s rules when it came to union actors, such as payment requirements and how long an advertising agency could use an actor’s image – instead temporarily using the proxy signatory ability of a payment company. Knox also claims ICA proposed an immediate 8 per cent wage increase but was rejected by the union.

Alistair Hepburn, ACTRA’s executive director, said the union has filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, alleging ICA and several of its ad agencies bargained in bad faith. Speaking to The Globe, Hepburn accused ICA of purposely proposing terms ACTRA would never agree to in an attempt to “bust the union,” which he said would deteriorate working conditions for actors and give advertising agencies the leverage they needed to pay less.

Chyann Garrick, who had been working steadily as an actor since 2019, said the labour dispute ground her commercial career to a halt, and has forced her to consider employment opportunities outside of acting.

Before what is known among actors as the “commercial lockout,” Garrick, who joined the union in 2020, said she was booking at least one ad campaign a month – sometimes two or three, at the height of the pandemic. But since negotiations crumbled, Garrick said, she has had significantly fewer auditions and booked zero campaigns. “I used to get about 20 to 30 auditions per month. I’ve probably had eight this whole year.”

Union actors aren’t paid by ACTRA during labour disputes, so to compensate for her losses she has found work as an operations manager at a photography studio. But Garrick misses acting full-time, and has had difficulty adjusting to the restrictions of a 9-to-5 job.

“For three years, I didn’t have to do any other work to really supplement my income. … Now a lot of my time is occupied with e-mails and meetings and things that I’m not really necessarily passionate about.”

For many actors in Canada, commercials forms the basis of their income during dry periods of larger productions. Without it, said Blake Johnston, a union actor who predominantly does voice work, Canada could see a talent drain as actors look to other industries or move to book productions outside of the country.

Bumping union actors out of commercial work is like “taking away the lifeblood of actors in Canada,” he said. American productions “basically do all the major casting in the States and then they come up here, so we only get scraps of what is possible for castings in these major shows.”

Johnston said he was booking an average of one commercial a month before the contract talks collapsed. He says he has pivoted much of his career to online brand partnerships and voice work for the television show Bakugan.

“I hope there’s a resolution soon. But … it feels like the advertising agencies are trying to bleed ACTRA dry and they’re trying to almost dissolve the union because they know they can wait this out and ACTRA can’t,” he said. “It feels like this is just going to get uglier.”

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