Screen and radio actors throughout the country often face precarious and uncertain working conditions. Many workers supplement their income by working in TV and radio commercials, but one of the associations that hires performers for commercials has locked out the union representing these workers since April 2022, exacerbating the financial stress they are under in an attempt to break the union.
Rank-and-file union members have begun organizing in response, realizing the importance of democratic, collective action. Spring recently spoke with Tess Degenstein, ACTRA member and member of the steering committee of the Rank and File Caucus of Actor Performers (RCAP), about the challenges working actors face in Canada and the need for solidarity in the face of union-busting.
What’s your background in the entertainment industry? How did you become involved in the union?
Tess Degenstein: I actually got into the industry when I was a child. I started film and TV acting in a show in Saskatchewan when I was about twelve, and that came from my interest in drama. Since then, I’ve built a pretty diverse portfolio of ways that I make money in this industry: theatre and live performance as well as commercial work, and then also film and television.
I became a part of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, which is the theatre association (representing stage actors), and they have a reciprocal agreement with ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), so after I became part of that and had my first commercial job I was immediately welcomed into the union. Though, I didn’t really understand too much about how the union worked being just twenty-one at the time. I vaguely had an idea about retirement benefits and medical and health care coverage; I used these a couple of times, but I didn’t really engage with my contract too much.
Over the past few years there have been some personal wakeup calls to get involved, including changes to auditions. But most urgently, in April 2022, there was suddenly a huge change to one of the streams in which I made money, which was commercial work. And that was due to a lockout that’s happening to union workers in the industry.
There is a lockout of Canadian commercial performers that has been going on for well over a year now. Can you give a little background as to your understanding of its cause?
TD: Fifteen months. It’s been a while. I’m not in the bargaining rooms or on the Bargaining Committee, so this is me, just speaking as a member, from what I understand about it all, and I do also understand that it’s quite complex.
But we have a collective agreement, and we’ve had it for sixty years. It’s called the NCA, the National Commercial Agreement. [It is] a collective agreement that was signed by ACTRA and two other parties: the ICA, the Institute of Canadian Agencies, and the ACA, the Association of Canadian Advertisers.
In March 2022, the ICA walked away from negotiations, locking us out. These are the agencies that do the hiring. Our collective agreement continues to exist. It’s been re-signed by the ACA, but we are locked out of work from the ICA, which is refusing to work under this collective agreement.
So TV commercial producers and advertisers can just continue to make productions without unionized actors?
TD: Yes. There are a bunch of agencies that are signatory to the NCA. They’re big advertising agencies, and they’re all under the umbrella of the ICA. These are the agencies that are locking the actors out. They are continuing to make commercials, but they’re doing it non-union.
In the wake of the lockout, how has the union responded?
TD: There’s a boycott of brands who are represented by these advertising agencies, and those brands include Canadian Tire, Wendy’s, Sleep Country, H&R Block, Rogers, and Home Hardware. The union has also been working on a simplified collective agreement. This is a sixty-year-old agreement: it’s large and complex, and as the industry has evolved, things have just been kind of added to it.
There have also been rallies. RCAP helped organize one at the Marketing Awards, where all of the locking out agencies were present; nominated for and potentially receiving awards for non-union work that they’ve done over the past fifteen months. The rally was to raise awareness of the lockout outside of those Marketing Awards, and it seems to have been quite successful. It got a lot of attention. There was a great turnout, and there was an excellent spirit and environment around that.
There have also been letter-writing campaigns. One of the agencies that had been locking out actors had been handling the government’s advertising, and there was a letter-writing campaign saying the government was using an agency for their advertising that was using replacement workers. And that agency, called Cossette, ended up coming back to the table and signing on with ACTRA. So that was a really effective tactic.
RCAP has also been really keen on attending rallies. On June 3, we went with fellow ACTRA members to support workers in the province at the Enough is Enough rally where ACTRA Toronto president David Gale spoke. It feels really good, these spaces where we can all kind of be together and make links with each other.
What’s the history of RCAP? Is this a new development?
TD: RCAP grew out of a subcommittee that was formed, that I was a part of, through ACTRA. We were working on the ICA lockout and brainstorming and organizing together about how to end it, and from there, those members continued working together under this new configuration as a caucus. I’m not an elected union officer, I’ve just become more engaged in these matters in the past year. We have principles and guidelines and we have meetings.
Over COVID, what I really felt was a huge isolation from other folks who did the kind of work that I did. I had a sense that the pressures on our industry, and especially on what was being asked of actors, were getting more intense, but there wasn’t a place to really gather to talk about all this together.
We don’t have a shop floor. There weren’t communal spaces anymore. It was through the lockout that I realized that this situation with the commercials going on was making life a lot more difficult for actors, but there are also other things happening in the industry, like the move over to self tapes, which I have found to be extremely challenging in terms of the amount that can be asked from an actor for free, and the lack of guidelines around that work, so there were just all these things that had been coming up.
It’s easy to feel alone, and the caucus, ideally, would be an umbrella where we could all come together and speak about the issues that are affecting us, including the way that capitalism feels like it’s accelerating, the kind of demands of the squeeze that are getting more intense, and inflation that’s getting worse and the cost of living. All of that. And, also where we could talk about a strong vision for our union that can combat the various ways in which we feel as workers that we’re being squeezed.
What are some of the goals and objectives of RCAP?
TD: The goals include member engagement and grassroots organizing. Just realizing that we’re not alone in this industry.
Part of the education for me has been that we are workers at all. I feel like it can be a shift in perspective to start to think of yourself as a worker as an actor, in part, because there is a narrative out there that “We love what we do.” And that’s true, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not work. So there’s also an education in identifying that “Oh, we are all workers,” and from there, “How can we stand together as workers and stay strong as workers, and fight these threats to our quality of life and our livelihood, and the value that is placed on our work?”
One of the values and part of the vision of RCAP is to make the union more democratic. Part of this is transparency: a belief that members become engaged when they can believe in and have a deep understanding of the workings of the union and how bargaining works, and connect that with the realities that they themselves are facing in the workplace. I definitely think we’re in a moment where people are banding together and kind of realizing that power is in the collective.
What are some of the specific challenges of trying to negotiate with the ICA?
TD: The ICA, I think, is absolutely trying to bust the union. What we’ve been told by the folks who are in the bargaining room is that the ICA came in proposing massive cuts in 2022, proposing a 60 percent cut. And when they came back in January 2023, [they were] proposing 80 to 90 percent cuts. Kind of unimaginable.
And they were also proposing an opt-in/opt-out clause, which basically kind of renders the collective agreement moot anyway, because they could only use it when they wanted to and just chuck it out when they wanted to. That feels very much like union busting, to come to the table with these kinds of ridiculous proposals that there’s no way we could accept and then to walk away, illegally, from negotiations. [ICA CEO and President] Scott Knox is really the face of the union-busting character of the ICA.
So many workers now are gig workers or temporary workers or otherwise in precarious employment, and employers are trying to take advantage of this precarity. How do you see the future of your industry?
TD: I think there may be a perception that an actor’s life is kind of glamorous, but, and I don’t know the exact number, but the median income of the average ACTRA member is something like $15,000-$17,000 a year. ACTRA talent earns less than 1 per cent of advertising agencies’ annual revenues, which are more than $10 billion. I think those numbers do a bit of talking.
But I feel so lucky that we have a union to begin with, because there’s something that’s in place. We have these collective agreements. We have protections and parameters and, you know, minimums and ceilings. You see it really happening in the entertainment industry in the United States with the Writers Guild of America strike, and Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists just [voting] “yes” in a strike authorization vote. Now, more than ever, it’s time for our unions to be as fortified as they can be. Because I do think that if there is any crack – we’ve seen this with Scott Knox – but any crack that appears makes us so incredibly vulnerable.
ACTRA members recently voted in favour of ratifying an agreement with ACA. So is the ICA the only remaining impediment to a new agreement?
TD: The collective agreement as it stands has been ratified for another year [with the ACA], so now ACTRA can continue working on ending the lockout with the ICA.
It’s been a really difficult fifteen, sixteen months for this industry. Initially it seemed like the lockout of commercial work would just affect the commercial sector, but the interesting thing is that it’s all rolled together. Actors and performers have other capacities, but they often rely on this bit of income to supplement the rest. So the impact of this lockout has been really devastating to the cultural community as a whole. I think it’s important to understand the stakes of what’s going on. It makes it really difficult to have a professional tier of artists in this country, which is so important for the culture.
In addition, from my understanding, the non-union world can be really all over the place in terms of rates and safety. Part of why this work is so important to me is not only fighting for the livelihoods of so many union members, but also protecting everyone working in this field.
Is there anything you’d like people to know about this lockout in particular or just the state of your industry, or is there anything they can do in solidarity?
TD: RCAP has initiated a letter-writing campaign in Ontario to support Bill 90, which has to do with the use of replacement workers. Any resident of Ontario can sign this letter, and you can find it on RCAP’s website. You can also check out other initiatives that we’ve launched and we’ve got some resources there including a library of articles that we feel relates to our work, FAQs, our principles.
Any amplification is helpful. Talking about any of these issues is so helpful. It’s something that we all have in common right now. There’s so much action right now in the labour movement, especially coming out of the pandemic, because so many folks were just taken such egregious advantage of. I’m really grateful these conversations are happening, and I’m grateful that my own perspective of my own work is growing to include an understanding of myself as a worker, as part of the economy, because, you know, I started in this industry when I was twelve, and that wasn’t my perception when I was twelve.
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate