Entertainment

2-year-long labour dispute has been ‘hardest 2 years of my life,’ Hamilton commercial actor says

For over two years, a labour dispute has kept thousands of unionized commercial actors in Canada from working under a longstanding agreement with major advertisers. 

“It’s been the hardest two years of my life,” Hamilton-based actor Kate Ziegler said. 

For Ziegler, commercial acting used to be her primary source of income. She often did announcer work, or worked as a brand voice, most recently for a lottery company. But since the labour dispute started in 2022, she’s been cut off from most work opportunities in her field. 

Now, Ziegler works as a server at a Hamilton restaurant, her first such job in 10 years. She said she could lose her home and is thinking about selling. 

“I will be one of four pretty close friends who have either sold a home or are in the process of losing a home directly because of the lockout,” Ziegler, who is also an ACTRA Toronto vice president, said.

On May 13, 2024, ACTRA Toronto members rallied outside Queen’s Park while supportive MPPs called on the Ontario government to support the union. (Submitted by ACTRA Toronto)

Negotiations broke down in 2022

At issue is the roughly 60-year-old National Commercial Agreement (NCA), between the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA) and the Association of Canadian Advertisers. Negotiations for an updated agreement between the ICA and ACTRA members fell apart in 2022. 

ACTRA — the national union to which Ziegler and about 30,000 English-speaking workers in her field belong — says the ICA proposed language weakening the agreement by allowing the agency to selectively opt in and out. The ICA, which represents advertising agencies serving major brands, says that in practice, ACTRA was allowing some work with parties outside the agreement, putting NCA signatories at a disadvantage. 

ACTRA also says ICA proposals would lead to pay cuts for members, which the ICA denies. 

The parties also disagree on whether the NCA is a collective agreement. ACTRA says it is and has historically functioned as such. The ICA says it is a contract that has expired. 

The union is pursuing an unfair labour practice claim against the ICA, alleging bad faith bargaining. ACTRA says the ICA is conducting an unlawful lockout in an attempt to bust the union. 

CBC Hamilton requested an interview from Scott Knox, the ICA’s president and CEO. He refused to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to do so while the unfair labour practice case is before the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

In September 2023, the ICA posted an open letter on its website, signed by Knox. It states that in the fall, a mediator ended negotiations between the two parties, saying they were too far apart. It also blames ACTRA for the dispute, saying the agency wants to protect unionized work.

Knox disputed that the current state of affairs constitutes a lockout. “It is ACTRA that has repeatedly instructed its members not to work for signatory agencies. … Agencies have never prevented ACTRA members from auditioning for productions.”

A portrait of a person in a plaid dress leaning against something metal outside.
Commercial actor and ACTRA member Kate Ziegler says getting more engaged with her union has given her hope in an otherwise difficult labour dispute. (Brody White)

In a typical year, 6,000 to 10,000 ACTRA members would work in commercials, spokesperson Jennifer McGibbon told CBC in an email.

The commercial voice acting gigs Ziegler worked provided much needed stability because they would often last a couple of years, she said. 

Shortly before the dispute, Ziegler was doing well enough that she moved from Toronto to Hamilton, buying a home in the Greensville area.

“I was so proud of myself,” she said. But that changed when negotiations broke down and she couldn’t work under the NCA. “Instead of feeling that pride, I just felt like I was drowning.”

Researcher says labour dispute deserves more attention

According to Madison Trusolino, a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University who has been studying the dispute, the ICA is “gaslighting” members by using pro-union language while denying they have a collective agreement.

Last year’s writer and actor strikes in the United States attracted a lot of attention, she said, but ACTRA’s fight remains less known, Trusolino said, perhaps because Canadians don’t promote our own creative industries, and perhaps because commercial actors aren’t well known.

She said she was “astounded” she hadn’t heard about the actors’ plight until last fall, but that it’s one Canadians should pay attention to because it involves precarious gig workers.  

“This is a broader issue that we need to be thinking about. If the NCA, a 60-year contract and agreement, can be gutted this easily, what does that say about other workers who have multiple employers?” 

A portrait of a seated person in a black T-shirt against a darkened room.
Guelph-based actor and ACTRA member Tim Beresford said the agency his union is fighting has more money and “fewer scruples” than they do, but ACTRA members are more stubborn. (Submitted by Tim Beresford)

Tim Beresford, an ACTRA member who lives in Guelph, Ont., has been an actor for 30 years, doing on-camera and voice work. He said he loves his job, but acting is still, ultimately, work. 

He’s made most of his money as a commercial actor doing voice overs for brands like Toyota or RBC, Beresford said. But since the dispute, he’s lost access to about 90 per cent of jobs. Now, he works construction 60 hours a week to support his family and pay his mortgage.

“I’m pissed off, I’m disgusted and I have every right to be,” Beresford said, adding that ACTRA wants the government to step in and help end the dispute. 

“Our union is under attack.”

ACTRA members call on Queen’s Park for help

On May 13, ACTRA members in Toronto rallied at Queen’s Park with support from members of provincial parliament Jill Andrew (Toronto—St. Paul’s) and Jamie West (Sudbury), who asked about the lockout during the legislature’s question period.

Both said Ontario government agencies have been buying ads from the agencies locking members out. David Piccini, the labour minister, said he would call government agencies Destination Ontario, Metrolinx and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to look into the matter.

“I recognize that government does have a role here,” he said, according to Hansard. 

ACTRA members also called on the province to encourage further bargaining between ACTRA and the ICA, and update the law to “make it clear” performers and other precarious workers have the same protections, rights and recourse as other Ontario workers” according to a May news release.  

CBC Hamilton repeatedly asked the Ministry of Labour Immigration, Training and Skills Development if Piccini did in fact make those calls, and whether the province would do what the union asked. The Ministry did not respond before publication. 

Some people, including friends of Ziegler’s and Beresford’s accountant, have told the actors they should look for new jobs, or expressed surprise that they’re still fighting the ICA.

Working outside the agreement would be “a race to the bottom I’m not even willing to consider,” Ziegler said, adding she’s felt “a sense of duty and obligation” to improve working conditions for young actors coming up. 

Despite how hard the last two years have been, Ziegler said that work has energized her and given her hope. “I see what’s possible when the creative working class comes together.”

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