In the News April 11
In Action in Defence of Rights
Canadian Actors Provide Negotiating Committee with Overwhelming Strike Vote
Members of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) have voted overwhelmingly to provide their Negotiating Committee with a strike mandate following a threatened lockout by commercial producers. The contract between ACTRA performers and producers of television commercials ended on June 30, 2020 and a new agreement has not been reached.
ACTRA is the national union of professional performers working in English-language recorded media in Canada, including TV, film, radio and digital media. The commercial producers, The Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA) and the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA), want to bring non-union rates to ACTRA’s contract and to give themselves the option to choose to work with non-union performers whenever it suits them.
ICA/ACA decided to potentially trigger a lockout of ACTRA performers initially as of midnight ET on April 2. That deadline has since been extended to 12:01 am ET on April 26.
Because of the lockout threat, the ACTRA National Council took the decision to conduct a strike vote to demonstrate support for the Negotiating Committee’s efforts to bargain a fair deal for ACTRA members. Voting on the strike mandate closed March 30.
Negotiations are continuing and ACTRA says, “This strong mandate does not necessarily mean there will be a work stoppage. We continue to negotiate to avoid a lockout while rejecting proposed changes to the agreement that will harm performers.”
Today, in the “new economy,” the majority of actors face harsh working conditions which require a militant defence of their rights. Such was also the case in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the unions in the theatre industry first came into being. At that time the industry was revolutionized by powerful management groups that monopolized and centralized it. This created harsh working conditions for the actors which the powerful owners and management groups fostered.
Actors in the U.S. decided to unionize, and on May 26, 1913, they formed the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA or “Equity”). In 1919, Equity called the first strike in the history of the American theatre, demanding recognition as the performers’ representative and bargaining agent. The strike lasted 30 days from August 7 to September 6, 1919 when they won the strike, gaining a standard contract. The strike spread to eight cities, closed 37 plays and prevented the opening of 16 others.
During the strike the Chorus Equity Association was formed, organizing those performers who sang and danced in the chorus of musicals. Marie Dressler, the famous Canadian theatre actor, comedian and screen actor, was instrumental in forming the chorus union, and was elected its first president. Dressler, born in Cobourg, Ontario, moved to the U.S. with her family as a child. There, she began her career in the chorus at $8 per week. She subsequently spent many years learning her profession acting in touring theatre companies all across Canada and the United States, eventually working in Broadway plays and musicals.
Dressler was blacklisted by Broadway producers for her pro-union stance and activities. They cut her off from acting work and left her destitute.
The strike she helped organize was important because it expanded the definition of labour and altered perceptions about what types of careers could organize. The strike also encouraged other groups within the theatre industry to organize.
In Canada, the origins of ACTRA were in the 1940s when radio artists in Toronto organized a union – the Radio Artists of Toronto Society (RATS) – to improve their financial compensation and working conditions. The ensuing years of bringing artists together nationally eventually led to the formation of a new national organization, ACTRA, in 1963. Today ACTRA represents over 28,000 professional performers across Canada.
1. Marie Dressler was finally able to return to acting in motion pictures when the film producer Louis B. Mayer, who grew up in Saint John, New Brunswick, signed her up. He called her “the most adored person ever to set foot in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.” Amongst other famous roles, she was cast alongside Charlie Chaplin in the 1914 silent film, Tillie’s Punctured Romance.
By the age of 60, Marie was not only the highest earning film star, but also the top box office draw in the industry. In 1931, Marie won the academy award for Best Actress for her role as Min in the hit comedy film Min and Bill. Two years later, she became the first Canadian featured on the cover of TIME magazine.
There is a Marie Dressler Museum in Cobourg.
Workers’ Forum, posted April 11, 2022.