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Actors are getting organized after being locked out of commercial work in Canada

Unionized actors in Canada have been locked out of major commercial productions for more than 600 days

LabourSocial Movements

SAG-AFTRA National Vice President, Los Angeles, Michelle Hurd (centre) at an ACTRA rally in Toronto, August 25, 2023. Photo courtesy ACTRA National/Facebook.

In May 2023, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike. Two months later, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined them on the picket lines. The decision brought unprecedented attention to labour organizing in the entertainment industry partly because of workers’ activity on social media and the support of major Hollywood stars. In September, the WGA reached a historic agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), thus ending their 148-day strike. After 118 days, SAG-AFTRA’s battle with the AMPTP ended in November with a controversial contract due to what some actors saw as lax artificial intelligence provisions. While Hollywood ground to a halt due to these strikes, production continues in “Hollywood North” without resolution. Unionized actors in Canada have now been locked out of major commercial productions for over 600 days.

Since the 1960s, the National Commercial Agreement (NCA) has acted as a contract between the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) and the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA)—which represents many large advertising agencies whose clients include big ticket brands like Visa and Rogers—and the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA), to regulate the use of commercial actors in Canada. This comes in the form of protections and rules that agencies must abide by when hiring unionized actors in Canada, such as fair wages and the right to compensation for using an actor’s voice and/or likeness. Notably, once signed onto the NCA, the agencies agree only to use ACTRA actors.

Yet, in May 2022, the ICA refused to sign onto the NCA, which has effectively locked out unionized commercial actors in Canada ever since. While the ACA agreed to a one-year extension of the NCA, there has been no movement in bargaining. Mediation was attempted, but after two months, mediator Eli Gedalof said, “[T]he parties are simply too far apart on issues that are fundamental to each.”

ACTRA and ICA have both issued contradictory statements concerning the nature of the lockout. ICA president and CEO Scott Knox insists that ICA agencies “respect and want to work with union talent.” Still, ACTRA has filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, accusing the ICA of bargaining in bad faith.

Currently, the ICA refuses to call the NCA a collective agreement even though it arguably meets the requirements of one under the Canada Labour Code. “If you sign onto a document that is… a labour agreement with a union,” Kaylah Zander-Nuñez, a Vancouver-based actor, argues, “and you’ve been signing that agreement for the last 60 years, I don’t know what else you would call it except a collective agreement.”

The ICA also insists that Clause 3005, which allows international non-signatory agencies to hire Canadian performers via an ACTRA-controlled payroll company, is a major sticking point. But rather than framing it as a provision that needs to be renegotiated (ACTRA has proposed alternative wording) the ICA labelled it a “loophole” for non-signatory agencies, allowing them to use union or non-union employees indiscriminately.

Interestingly, the ICA has proposed a series of scenarios where they could opt out of using union actors, such as when a production “will only be used on social media.” But digital ads are now becoming the norm; ad spending on social media totals more than $173 billion worldwide. Kate Ziegler, a Toronto-based voice and screen commercial actor, argues these proposed scenarios are like a thread “sewn into various sections” of the latest proposed contract where “anything that has that thread puts the entire agreement at risk of collapsing.”

“Language is super important,” Ziegler says, “I’m assuming that advertising agencies and their leadership know that better than anyone.”

An actor-run Instagram account called Locked Out Actors has been anonymously posting first-hand accounts from actors on how the lockout has impacted them. Many stories address the drying up of auditions and the necessity of picking up additional work outside of acting. Actors also lament the inability to continue work on commercial campaigns they were already hired for. “Without commercial work,” Ziegler says, “actors are in big trouble in this country.”

But while the lockout has impacted actors nationally, it has not impacted them equally. Provincial regulations around the use of unionized labour, the size of their respective screen production industries, and the different branches of ACTRA all come into play when assessing the lockout’s impact on actors.

In Ontario, the lockout has been devastating for commercial actors. Ziegler says that commercial acting and voiceover work made up 100 percent of her income for years. Since the lockout she has returned to service work to try and make up the loss. Zander-Nuñez estimates that only five percent of commercials shot in British Columbia used union performers—even before the lockout.

Importantly, this speaks to the broader problem of non-unionized productions in Canada. In addition to the lower pay, non-union work can be exploitative and even have long-term ramifications for an actor’s career. For example, Zander-Nuñez says American corporations will come to Canada for cheap rates and hire non-union actors whom they fly to film in Mexico, asking them to say they are travelling for a vacation. “[T]hey tell these actors to lie,” Zander-Nuñez explains, “and if they were to be caught, the repercussions for that performer would be pretty severe; you could be banned from that country, you could go to jail, you could face a fine.”

Both Zander-Nuñez and Ziegler have noticed a correlation between the increased diversity in advertising and the increase in non-unionized production. While agencies and brands are getting lauded for diverse representation in their advertisements, Zander-Nuñez says the working conditions in the industry have become increasingly unstable. She adds: “These companies don’t want to pay, and they want to tear up these collective agreements and destroy these unions. I don’t think that that’s a coincidence.”

Out of this crisis of work, new voices have begun to emerge.

ACTRA’s National NCA Bargaining Commitee show their support for striking SAG-AFTRA members in downtown Toronto. Photo courtesy ACTRA/X.

Ziegler became more involved with the union when the bargaining process fell apart. “I started going to town halls, and I started trying to process what was happening for myself,” she says. “I found it very confusing. And so I started writing things like an actor’s breakdown of the lockout and I would send it out to people. And pretty soon, I realized, okay, I’m not the only one who’s grappling with this.”

ACTRA, like many unions, bargains behind closed doors. A small bargaining team is elected to meet with the employer’s bargaining team in closed bargaining. While it is perhaps the most common form of bargaining, it is questioned for its lack of transparency. Ziegler’s frustration speaks to the lack of direct and consistent communication between ACTRA and its members. Because this can create confusion amongst members, it also provides fertile ground for the ICA to spread its own narrative.

This feeling of confusion led Ziegler and others to form the National Commercial Agreement Sub-Committee in June 2022 to focus specifically on the ongoing lockout. In October 2023, after receiving encouragement from their mentors, several members of the Sub-Committee began meeting on their own. In 2023, they publicly launched the Rank-and-File Caucus of ACTRA performers (RCAP).

At the heart of the rank-and-file strategy is a dedication to centring the voices and needs of union members instead of leaders. Members uphold union democracy and seek to empower a larger working-class movement. While RCAP initially came out of the necessity to pursue a fair contract, it is also pushing for greater internal reform. One of their formative pillars is establishing clear and transparent communication about the bargaining process between ACTRA and its members.

In March 2023, RCAP filed a petition for Bargaining Reform with ACTRA. The petition outlined the need for open bargaining, transparency, improved communications, and the establishment of a permanent bargaining strategy committee. The petition proved to be a popular first step. According to ACTRA’s Constitution and Bylaws, to petition the union, RCAP needed 100 members’ signatures; they got 625. “We want more transparency,” Ziegler says. “Members are really longing to see what is happening, when it’s happening, how it’s happening.”

There has also been frustration with how ACTRA has organized the campaign around the lockout. ACTRA has taken a number of actions to garner public and member support. The biggest of these was a call for a boycott of brands that work with ICA agencies. This snowballed into hosting demonstrations in front of associated stores. But both Ziegler and Zander-Nuñez say that as members, they have felt uninspired by these actions.

Zander-Nuñez thinks the union’s heart is in the right place, but there isn’t enough public pressure or awareness to make boycotting a viable strategy. While Zander-Nuñez agrees that going for companies’ pocketbooks is a key tactic, she spotlights different techniques to do so. For example, an ACTRA member-led initiative disrupted the production of a Rogers commercial shooting at a café in Toronto. “I think those members were not only super brave but really engaged and devoted, but I think that was the most effective action that we’ve seen regarding this entire dispute.”

Ziegler similarly believes that effective action needs to come from the membership. “I think you have to ask the members what they want to do versus asking them to mobilize on something they didn’t come up with.” Part of this fosters clear and transparent communication between ACTRA and its members.

While RCAP hopes to further its national reach, Ziegler admits that many key organizing members are in Toronto, so they decided to run their first slate in the ACTRA Toronto council election in November 2023. All eight slate members were elected, and the voting turnout nearly doubled from the previous election in 2021.

RCAP also plans to further integrate with the larger Canadian labour movement, as exemplified by their letter-writing campaign supporting Ontario’s Bill 90. Otherwise known as the Anti-Scab Labour Act, Bill 90 would prevent employers from “replacing striking or locked-out employees with replacement workers except in specified emergency situations.”

Importantly, RCAP exists not to oppose ACTRA; the group states on its website that members “unequivocally support” ACTRA, but they also want to better it. “It’s an exciting time for ACTRA,” Ziegler says. “But it’s also going to be a time of healing, and I think that’s where the transparency and the democratic process is going to really be important… We’re all workers.”

Both Zander-Nuñez and Ziegler hope that the major takeaway from the continued lockout and the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes is an awareness that artists and actors are workers whose struggles are connected to the broader labour movement. “We’re all workers. And when obscene amounts of money [are] being made, workers deserve that fair share,” Zander-Nuñez says. “I hope it’s an awakening for all workers, not just those working in a factory, autoworkers, or UPS workers.”

ICA’s complete show of disrespect for a major labour agreement should concern all Canadian workers, not only actors. “If that could happen to us and could happen to an agreement that’s been placed for 60 plus years,” Ziegler says, “to me, that says that anyone who is not in a direct single employer relationship is vulnerable.”

At the time of the interview, Kate Ziegler was not an elected member of the ACTRA Toronto Council.

Madison Trusolino is a postdoctoral fellow on the 2SLGBTQ+ Poverty in Canada project. She has a PhD in Information Studies from the University of Toronto. Her research looks at the intersections of precarity, sexuality, and gender, specifically emphasizing work and workers in the arts and culture industries. Follow her on X @m_trusolino.

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