ICA and ACTRA mediation fails, followed by new war of words

The only outcome from two days of mediation last week in the bitter labour dispute between some of Canada’s top ad agencies and commercial actors was an exchange of testy, accusatory statements that prove the two sides remain far apart on a resolution.

The mediation arose out of informal discussions between the key legal counsels on both sides of a months-long labour battle, led by ACTRA, the union for commercial actors in Canada on one side, and the Institute of Canadian Agencies on the other. (See all of our coverage here.) But the mediation was not successful, to say the least.

On Tuesday, the ICA issued a statement about the failed talks.

“I am personally shocked that after all the claims ACTRA and the ACA have made about working to modernize the NCA since April that ACTRA would show up at a mediation they requested with a closed mind and no new proposals,” said ICA president and CEO Scott Knox. However, ACTRA says the mediation was not supposed to be about new bargaining, but about exploring a path to return to bargaining.

“It is deplorable that ACTRA continues to disrupt opportunities for its members to work in advertising while spreading misinformation about the issues,” said Knox. “ACTRA is continuing with its bad faith attempt to force agencies that were formerly signatory to the NCA to accept a status quo for the industry that is a disadvantage for all stakeholders with the exception of non-signatory agencies who can continue to work mostly non-union and are allowed to access ACTRA members when they please.”

This last line refers to what the ICA says has been the core issue at the heart of the dispute—that non-signatory agencies can use non-union talent whenever they want, while still being able to access ACTRA talent through third party companies like payroll services. The ICA has said that to sign a new NCA, signatory agencies must have the right to opt in and opt out of the agreement, meaning they would be able to use non-ACTRA talent for some projects. ACTRA bluntly calls this union-busting.

However, the ICA also said it’s calling for ACTRA to remove “systemic barriers for diverse performers,” and that it wants to see more BIPOC performers join ACTRA. “A minimum union fee of $1,600 is a significant barrier to performers early in their career, which discourages diversity in ACTRA’s membership,” it said.

ACTRA responded soon after ICA issued its statement, with an update to its membership responding to specific claims made by the ICA, as well as via a letter to ICA chair Ira Baptiste.

“The ICA claims ACTRA has made changes that are barriers to diverse performers. That’s not true,” said the bulletin to members. “In fact, ACTRA is making it easier for performers to join the union. ACTRA is proud of its diverse membership and one of the reasons why Canada has become a destination for international film and television productions.”

The letter to Baptiste, signed by ACTRA national executive director Marie Kelly, accuses Knox of spreading mistruths in an attempt to undermine the process.

The letter also specifically addresses the use of third-party vendors by non-signatory agencies, claiming that work represents only 3% of all ACTRA commercial work. “They chose to bargain to impasse over this non-material issue, in an attempt to break the agreement,” says the letter, which ends with a direct call for the ICA to no longer follow the lead of Knox.

“People who counsel this kind of conduct generally find themselves unemployable once the disputes they provoke are finally settled, and the people who need to collaborate take stock of the damage done,” it says. “ACTRA members have worked with ICA member agencies for many years, and hope to continue to do so. We don’t want the many mistakes, acts of bad faith and shameful conduct displayed by your President & CEO to reflect on your brands.”

The dispute broke into the open in late April, when the ICA and ACTRA were unable to agree on a new National Commercial Agreement. With the two sides seemingly at an impasse, ACTRA signed a new agreement with the Association of Canadian Advertisers and claimed that new agreement would be binding for all previous signatories, including ad agencies represented by the ICA.

Since then, ACTRA has said its workers have been locked out by Canadian agencies who refuse to recognize the NCA signed with ACA, while the ICA says ACTRA talent is on strike. (Read out in-depth overview of the dispute here.) ACTRA has taken legal action including filing a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board accusing the ICA and those nine agencies bargained in bad faith while attempting to negotiate a new National Commercial Agreement for the industry.

David Brown