Actors’ union calls for PCs to rein in non-union Metrolinx, OLG ads

By Alan S. Hale May 13, 2024

Culture Minister Neil Lumsden with actress Gabriella de la Torre at ACTRA Toronto’s awards show at the Palais Royale on April 22, 2024. (Twitter)

Members of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) will hold a rally at Queen’s Park today to mark the two-year anniversary of the union’s ongoing labour dispute — and to encourage arm’s-length provincial agencies like Metrolinx to stop using non-union actors in television ads.

ACTRA says its members have been blocked from working on commercials since the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA), which represents ad agencies, locked the union out in April 2022, a response to ACTRA greenlighting a strike. The ICA contends the situation does not amount to a “lockout” because the union is directing actors not to work with its member agencies.

The two sides are fighting it out over the National Commercial Agreement, which has set the terms for hiring actors for commercials between ACTRA, the ICA and the Association of Canadian Advertisers for the past 60 years.

Although the PC government has largely steered clear of commenting on the conflict, the Province of Ontario is a member of the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA), a group that includes major retailers, telecoms, insurance firms, banks and fast food companies.

However, this has not prevented provincial agencies — including Metrolinx and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) — from making commercials where ACTRA performers were barred from auditioning.

Although ACTRA believes the National Commercial Agreement is a collective agreement, it has never officially been recognized as one under provincial labour law, leading to an ongoing battle at the Labour Relations Board between the union and the ICA over whether the agreement binds advertising agencies to use union performers for all of their commercials.

ACTRA executive-director Alistair Hepburn argued it is time for the PC government to live up to its pro-worker rhetoric and resolve the issue once and for all.

“We’re just really asking this government to do what they say they want to do, which is ‘work for workers,’” Hepburn told Queen’s Park Today in a phone interview, pointing to the recently introduced Bill 190, Working for Workers Five Act.

“We want to see ourselves in that Working for Workers Act. What it will involve is we’ll need some recognition under the Employment Standards Act,” said Hepburn. “We want to see protections in place that protect performers and their negotiated agreements.”

Provincial ads being made with non-union actors

ACTRA provided three examples of recent provincial advertising campaigns that were made by ICA member agencies, meaning union actors could not audition.

The most notorious of these is the controversial “See Beyond” campaign, the sarcastic Metrolinx ads that ran in movie theatres and encouraged Ontarians to quit complaining about the lengthy construction and detours necessary to build new transit lines.

Metrolinx also ran a campaign called “Making Possibilities Happen” that ACTRA said its members were blocked from working on.

A spokesperson for the ICA said the organization and its member agencies are not blocking ACTRA performers from auditioning, the union is.

“It is ACTRA that has repeatedly instructed its members not to work for named agencies,” ICA president Scott Knox said in an email. “ACTRA instructed members to strike and has consistently encouraged members to remain on strike … Neither agencies nor their clients have ever prevented ACTRA members from auditioning for productions.”

Lastly, the OLG’s “Bring Home the Win” campaign was also created without the union, even though OLG is a member of the ACA and therefore a party to the National Commercial Agreement — although Metrolinx is not.

Neither Metrolinx nor OLG responded to requests for comment for this story.

Hepburn said the non-union advertising problem is exclusive to arm’s-length provincial agencies. All of the province’s direct government advertising, including the “It’s Happening Here” campaign, used ACTRA performers.

“The call here is for the government to continue to do the right thing that they’re already doing internally — but to have their agencies do the right thing as well,” he said.

Provincial procurement rules hamstring actors

The fact that some provincial agencies are employing advertising agencies that are refusing to hire ACTRA performers has been brought up in the legislature.

Last September, NDP MPP Jamie West called on the PCs during question period to “stop using advertising agencies that use replacement scab workers in Ontario’s government-funded ads.”

“No, we’re not going to stop doing advertising,” replied government house leader Paul Calandra, adding that the government will “continue to follow all of the rules” governing the procurement of government advertising.

Hepburn said those procurement rules “may be the things that need the most scrutiny out of all of this,” arguing the rules focus on the spending of government money to the exclusion of other concerns such as protecting workers.

For instance, procurement rules require that performers relinquish rights to their performances in perpetuity, which can hamstring future acting opportunities, Hepburn said.

That’s because there are “conflict” rules that come into play should the ads be reused.

“If you do a Metrolinx commercial, you cannot work in any form of other transit advertising — probably in North America,” he explained. “With a perpetuity use … you would now be conflicted forever. So you will never do another one of those commercials in your professional career.”

Despite these issues, Hepburn said there are signs the government is listening. Both Labour Minister Dave Piccini and Culture Minister Neil Lumsden — who was an ACTRA member when he was playing for the Canadian Football League — met with ACTRA reps last week, and the union came away pleased with those discussions. Before that meeting, Lumsden also recently attended ACTRA’s annual awards banquet.

“Lumsden provided his full support for the industry and for the performers while he was on the stage … he has said, ‘I want to see what I can to shift the needle on this.’”

Lumsden’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove a reference to the Province of Ontario being a signatory to the National Commercial Agreement. It is a member of the Association of Canadian Advertisers, which is itself a signatory.

It has also been updated to include a response from the Institute of Canadian Agencies.