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The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists held rallies in front of the Toronto offices of Leo Burnett, July 11, 2022.HO/The Canadian Press

Canada’s actors’ union is calling on consumers to boycott brands that deal with a group representing some of the country’s largest advertising agencies, after a continuing labour dispute that has left unionized performers locked out of work making commercials.

The companies named by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) include Canadian Tire, M&M Food Market, McDonald’s, Rogers, Walmart and H&R Block. The union is also demanding the federal government end its contract with Cossette, which it says has “unjustly locked out ACTRA performers.”

ACTRA, which represents 28,000 actors, has been in a dispute with the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA), a non-for-profit association that represents advertising agencies, since talks to renew their labour agreement collapsed in April, 2022. The ICA returned to the bargaining table on Dec. 23, but no progress has been reported publicly owing to a media blackout.

Marie Kelly, ACTRA’s national executive director, said actors would rather build on the success of the brands they help advertise than call for their boycott, but “after 334 days of a lockout, enough is enough.”

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The Globe and Mail reached out for comment to all of the companies named in ACTRA’s boycott campaign, but only heard back from Walmart, which said it would not be commenting at this time.

The ICA maintains that it’s negotiating in good faith to create a new National Commercial Agreement (NCA) to replace the “outdated and unfair” agreement that expired last year, and has accused ACTRA of trying to derail the negotiations by spreading misinformation and push the ICA to reimpose the previous labour agreement.

“ICA agencies have deep respect for unionized performers, but ACTRA has refused to permit union talent to work with ICA agencies since the NCA expired, which has created lost opportunities for their own members,” ICA said in a statement.

Many actors affected by the lockout applauded ACTRA for the move.

“The boycott campaign is exactly where we need to be,” said Kate Ziegler, a Toronto-based actor and ACTRA member. “This is what unions do they, they protect their rights by pointing at the employers that are threatening the union contract.”

Juan Arboleda, also a Toronto actor, said that whether or not people start boycotting these brands en masse, he hopes the campaign will attract attention and help apply public pressure on larger companies to implement ethical work standards.

The labour agreement, better known as the National Commercial Agreement, dictates terms and conditions for actors, securing higher rates, retirement contributions and a multi-employer benefit plan. Without it, actors say working conditions on set have been steadily deteriorating.

ACTRA said that, in 2021, its members earned roughly $40-million from commercial work. That is less than 1 per cent of advertising agencies’ annual revenues of more than $10-billion, according to data from Statistics Canada.

If the ICA busts the union, “it’ll be the Wild West out there,” said John Cleland, an actor in Toronto and ACTRA member. “It’s really about safe sets, health coverage, retirement and being paid a fair wage for our work that all actors deserve.”

In February, The Globe reported that the federal government had paid millions of tax dollars to Cossette, at the same time it was mulling legislation to ban the use of non-union replacement workers, often derisively called scabs, in federally regulated businesses.

“It is very, very disappointing to ACTRA performers that we have a federal government who is talking about the need to bring in anti-scab legislation … and yet on the other hand, spending hundreds of millions last year with an agency that is promoting the use of non-union performers over union performers,” said Ms. Kelly.

With a report from Josh O’Kane.