ACTRA members protest outside Cossette

With the protracted labour fight between ACTRA and some of Canada’s largest advertising agencies showing no signs of a resolution, the actors’ union took its fight back to the streets with a vocal protest outside of Cossette’s Toronto office on Wednesday.

A crowd of about 130 people marched from nearby Allan A. Lamport Stadium to Cossette’s Liberty Village offices in Toronto’s west end, chanting “End the lockout now” and holding placards reading “No union busting” and “Respect the performers. Come back to the table.”

Boos and cries of “shame” punctuated speeches by ACTRA Toronto’s president David Gale, ACTRA’s national executive director Marie Kelly, national president Eleanor Noble and Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske. Several politicians, including Toronto city councillor Paula Fletcher and Toronto Centre MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam, were also in attendance.

“What do we want?” exhorted Gale on multiple occasions, leading the actors to chant “End the lockout now.”

The two sides have markedly different viewpoints regarding the dispute, with the Institute of Canadian Agencies and its member agencies claiming that ACTRA is refusing to work with them, meaning it’s a strike, and ACTRA contending that its members are being locked out.

“They walked away from the table and went and hired, yes, scabs,” said Gale to more boos. “Scabs who don’t have to get paid insurance, who don’t have to get paid residuals.

“We’re not famous people, we’re gig workers,” he said, turning towards Cossette. “And you locked us out.”

Wednesday’s event followed similar protests held outside Cossette’s Vancouver office and Leo Burnett’s Toronto offices last month.

The labour fight broke out in late April, after ACTRA and the ICA failed to come to terms on a new National Commercial Agreement, a decades-old labour standard agreement covering everything from rates to usage and working conditions for members.

Negotiated between ACTRA, the ICA and the Association of Canadian Advertisers, the agreement legally bound signatory agencies to use only ACTRA talent for commercial productions, regardless of size.

The sticking point, however, has been the ICA’s insistence that signatories be permitted to opt-out of using ACTRA talent on certain productions, arguing that it levels the playing field with non-signatory agencies—who have access to non-ACTRA talent at any time, while also working with ACTRA talent through so-called “third-party” service providers, like payroll companies.

With no sign of an end to the dispute, and the two sides not meeting again until an Oct. 12 Ontario Labour Relations Board hearing, Kelly said that ACTRA members are resolved to end the fight on their terms. “I think they believed our performers would bail on their union, and wouldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder, and we’ve proven them wrong,” she said. “Our members are standing firmly together.”

ACTRA members, meanwhile, say they are simply seeking minimum protections. “In 2022 we shouldn’t be arguing about union-busting, we should be moving forward and protecting gig workers,” said Linda Kash, who spent 17 years playing the Philly Cream Cheese Angel.

“It’s not okay to throw sand in the face of the little guy,” she continued. “We are working really hard and we sell your products.

“There’s no question that it’s a muscle flex,” she added. I can’t say that I know we’re going to get our way, but we’re not going to stop, that’s for sure.”

Kelly, meanwhile, pointed to the fact that Quebec’s agency association, the Association of Creative Communications Agencies (A2C) signed onto the NCA in June as an indication that ACTRA is making headway.

Cossette’s Quebec office was among the signatories, although its Toronto office has not signed on. Standing just steps from Cossette’s Atlantic Avenue headquarters, she said the agency has decided “they want to be hard-hearted and they want to continue down this road of destruction for the industry.”

In an email statement, Cossette directed The Message to the ICA’s position statement, which contends that much of ACTRA’s rhetoric is untrue. “We put our faith in the ICA to negotiate on behalf of the entire marketing communications industry,” said Cossette.

Kelly warned that a continued standoff could lead to more commercial work being done outside of Canada, meaning lost work for both Canadian actors and the agencies that employ them. “Our fear is that if it goes on much longer, it’s going to really suck some work out of Canada,” she said. “[The agencies] need to stop what they’re doing, and consider the impact on them.”

In a statement to The Message, ICA president and CEO Scott Knox said that its member agencies “value our many longstanding relations with ACTRA performers,” and said that negotiations to renew the NCA were unsuccessful because the union would not agree that signatory agencies be given “the same fair and equal access” to ACTRA performers that is granted to non-signatory agencies.

“[W]e would welcome the opportunity to continue working with ACTRA performers,” he said. “However, ACTRA has barred their members from working with former signatory agencies, which is forcing other production solutions. The ICA suggests that ACTRA leadership respect the process that ACTRA itself initiated at the OLRB and stop disrupting opportunities for agencies to employ ACTRA talent while issues with the expired NCA are resolved,” he added.

Chris Powell