ACTRA protests at Leo Burnett and Cossette just ahead of key labour dispute hearing

The labour fight between ACTRA and some of Canada’s biggest ad agencies spilled into the streets Monday, with protests held in front of Leo Burnett Canada’s head office and Cossette’s office in Vancouver.

Dozens of people, some waving placards, stood at the corner of Bloor and Church outside Leo Burnett in Toronto at noon, where they heard impassioned speeches from ACTRA leadership demanding that Leo Burnett and other agencies end what they call a lockout of ACTRA talent. “We are just getting started,” said David Gale, ACTRA Toronto president, before leading a chant of “End the lockout now.”

The protests come a day ahead of an important scheduled meeting with an Ontario Labour Relations Board mediator on Tuesday, though with both sides so far apart on core issues, a resolution seems unlikely, with litigation to follow.

Though the roots of the dispute go back years, the fight went public in late April, when the Institute of Canadian Agencies and ACTRA were unable to negotiate a new National Commercial Agreement.

The NCA has been the labour standards document for commercial production in Canada for decades—covering everything from rates to usage and working conditions. The agreement was historically negotiated between ACTRA, the ICA, and the Association of Canadian Advertisers, with signatory agencies legally bound to use only ACTRA talent for their commercial production, no matter how small the project.

While the NCA covers all aspects of the agency-ACTRA relationship, the talks broke down over the ICA’s insistence that its signatory members be able to opt out of using ACTRA talent on some projects. ICA said this would provide a level playing field with non-signatory ad agencies that can work with non-ACTRA talent any time they choose, while also working with ACTRA talent through “third-party” service providers, such as payroll companies.

Talks broke down over that opt-in / opt-out demand, and ACTRA negotiated a new one-year agreement with the ACA on its own. (See our explainer on the dispute here, and our update on some of the steps taken by ACTRA since then here.)

Since then there has been no progress or formal talks between the ICA and ACTRA, and labour experts that have spoken with The Message say it is difficult to recall a similar dispute with the two sides unable to agree on some of the most basic details. 

ACTRA says it’s a lockout, but the ICA says no, it wants to work with ACTRA, only for ACTRA to refuse to work with them, meaning it’s a strike. ACTRA says the National Commercial Agreement is in effect, the ICA says it’s not. They can’t even agree on what the NCA is, legally speaking: ACTRA says it’s a collective agreement, ICA says it’s a commercial agreement—an important distinction for the Ontario Labour Relations Board, which can only pass judgement and enforce actions for collective agreements.

Speaking with The Message after the protest on Monday, ACTRA national executive director Marie Kelly said some agencies have signed back on to the new agreement negotiated with the ACA, and she expects more will follow.

She pointed to the recent agreement with Quebec’s agency association A2C. Both Cossette and Sid Lee in Quebec have agreed to work under the terms of the new agreement; however their offices outside Quebec have not signed the agreement, and therefore remain on the list of agencies that ACTRA won’t work with. ACTRA now lists 14 of Canada’s biggest agencies as those that its members should not work with because they have locked out ACTRA by not signing the new NCA (the ICA points to this as proof ACTRA is on strike).

Agencies will come back because they want to work with ACTRA talent, said Kelly. “We’re going to try and inch them back on, and I think over time they will realize that they need access more to our performers. And I do believe you’re going to start to see some of the ad agencies—hopefully the bigger ones—come back and sign on.”

Asked specifically about the ICA’s third-party complaint, Kelly said they wanted to negotiate on that, but the ICA wasn’t really interested in resolving the issue.

“It’s getting very annoying,” she said, for the ICA to point to third-parties as the problem when it presented no proposal to resolve the issue in bargaining. “We gave them a comprehensive proposal—before we met for the last round of negotiations—a comprehensive third-party proposal on how we could deal with that and minimize it. And they said nothing. Crickets. Not a thing back.”

ICA president and CEO Scott Knox declined to comment for this article on Monday, but pointed The Message to an ICA statement late last month, in which it proposed that ACTRA negotiate a new NCA with those third-party businesses. “Why not permit all clients and agencies to access ACTRA talent only through the signatory payroll companies, in accordance with the terms and conditions of an NCA that is negotiated directly with these companies?” said the statement. “This way there is one clear route to using ACTRA performers for Canadian agencies which would be fair for all.”

Kelly said ACTRA was also willing to negotiate on rates for smaller pieces of content where agencies didn’t want to have to spend on ACTRA talent—the issue that led to the opt-out demand from ICA.

“They raised that issue and we were negotiating on it,” she said. “It wasn’t the goal to solve the problems that they’re listing. The goal was to break the union so that they could have actor performers, not pay for benefits, not pay for the RSP and undercut the rates.”

David Brown