ACTRA begins targeting agencies over labour dispute

The actor's union staged protests outside of agency offices in a bid to have them be part of negotiations for a new agreement.

The union representing over 28,000 Canadian actors started the first in a planned series of direct actions against agencies it says are engaged in a lockout of performers by not recognizing its National Commercial Agreement (NCA).

From noon to 1 p.m. on Monday, ACTRA scheduled a protest outside of the Toronto offices of Leo Burnett, where more than two dozen members could be seen holding signs demanding the agency “respect the performers” and “come back to the table.” Across the country, another protest was held at Cossette’s Vancouver office at the same time locally.

A spokesperson for ACTRA said Leo Burnett and Cossette were two of a number of agencies engaged in what it has described as an unlawful lockout of its performers. Monday was the first in a series of rallies, with future protests planned to target other agencies that have yet to sign to the NCA and are named in ACTRA’s complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

This is the first direct action ACTRA has taken against specific ad agencies since its labour dispute with the Institute of Canadian Agencies began in the spring. ACTRA’s position is that individual agencies that have authorized the ICA to negotiate on their behalf are engaged in a lockout as well, though ACTRA’s spokesperson said that both Leo Burnett and Cossette violated the NCA by producing commercials outside of the agreement.

Ben Tarr, president of Leo Burnett Canada, said in an email to strategy that the agency closed its office on Monday “as a precaution” after learning of the protest plans on Friday. Though he didn’t address whether Leo Burnett had been engaging agencies outside of the NCA or if it intended to negotiate with ACTRA, Tarr said the agency views this as industry issue, and is “confident in the ICA’s ability to negotiate a level playing field for all parties.”

Cossette declined to comment for this story.

In April, ACTRA and the Association of Canadian Advertisers reached a deal on a new one-year NCA that was largely similar to the previous agreement, with the addition of a 2% raise in rates for performers. This was done to give the parties time to continue negotiations over “modernizing and simplifying” the lengthy and complicated NCA. The ICA, however, was no longer included as a member of the Joint Broadcast Committee, and has maintained that the previous NCA has expired and its members are not bound to its terms, nor to any new agreement made by other parties. ACTRA’s position has been that this constitutes a lockout by the ICA and its members.

Since then, ACTRA says it has been engaging with agencies directly to have them join in negotiations and informing them that they’ve received “bad advice” from the ICA. Though ACTRA could not say which ones, several agencies have agreed to the NCA as individual signatories.

The ICA posted its latest response to ACTRA’s claims at the end of June, which reiterated its position that an opt-out provision is necessary to “level the playing field.” An article in the NCA allows non-signatory agencies to engage ACTRA talent by using a third-party payroll company to be a Canadian signatory acting on their behalf. At the time, this was done to allow foreign companies to produce commercial work in Canada with ACTRA performers, though the ICA says that it is now exploited by new agencies in Canada to use ACTRA and non-ACTRA talent as they please.

At the time of the complaint, Scott Knox, president and CEO of the ICA, told strategy that the ICA pushed for an opt-out option instead of closing the loophole because ACTRA was unable to, as it would create a material business change that could invite legal action from the third-party signatories. The ICA’s latest response added that another way forward would be to negotiate a new NCA with payroll companies, or else permit all clients and agencies to access ACTRA talent only through the signatory payroll companies.

ACTRA’s position has been that any clause allowing agencies to decide if and when they adhere to a collective agreement would be a clear reduction in its scope of bargaining rights, as well as create favourable terms for ICA members. Insisting on such a term to the point that it causes an impasse in negotiations, ACTRA says, amounts to bad-faith bargaining, resulting in the complaint it filed in May.

The complaint to the Labour Board has not yet been publicly posted, though an ACTRA spokesperson says the agencies named in the claim have all been provided a copy. A hearing with an Ontario Labour Relations Board mediator is scheduled for Tuesday.

ACTRA has also published a list of “locking out engagers” to its website, saying they are participating in an “unlawful lockout of ACTRA performers” and advising members to not accept work from them. In addition to Leo Burnett and Cossette, that list includes BBDO, DDB, FCB, Grey, John St., Juniper Park\TBWA, McCann, Ogilvy, Publicis, Sid Lee, Taxi and Wunderman Thompson. The Quebec-based offices of Cossette and Sid Lee are excluded from the list, as the A2C – which represents Quebec ad agencies – joined the NCA last month.

Strategy has reached out to agencies on the list to ask if they were unwilling to join negotiations with ACTRA, if they shared the position that the NCA was no longer in effect or if they had engaged performers outside the terms of the NCA. They were also asked whether any staff had refused to work as a result.

Agencies that responded by press time either declined to comment or deferred to the ICA to handle negotiations on behalf of the industry.

Featured image from ACTRA.