In the Courts: B.C. actors’ union ordered to relax rules over benefits

The B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver | Rob Kruyt, BIV

Trustees providing member benefits to an actors’ union in B.C. must amend its agreement to allow the union’s members to switch benefits according to the rules laid out by the union’s constitution, the Appeals Court of B.C. has decided.

Members of the Union of B.C. Performers (UBCP), the B.C. and Yukon local of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists (ACTRA) have for years had the option to opt into the benefits offered by the local, through the Member Benefits Trust (MBT), and those offered by the national union, through the ACTRA Fraternal Benefits Society.

The two exist separately because of a dispute between the two unions that led to UBCP becoming the B.C.-Yukon local of ACTRA in 1996, under what was referred to as the Kelleher Agreement, named for the arbiter of the agreement, Stephen Kelleher. And in 2005, the two benefits providers agreed to allow members moving between UBCP and ACTRA to switch providers.

Then, in 2016, the union changed its constitution to allow members to switch between the providers every five years.

However, when the union tried to go into negotiations with the providers, the trustees of MBT refused to agree to the change, fearing the insurers would cease to underwrite the benefits or cause the premiums to go up significantly.

The matter went to court after union member Alvin Sanders decided to act on the union’s constitutional change and switch his benefits provider, effectively becoming a test case to determine the outcome of the disagreement.

The B.C. Supreme Court landed on the side of the MBS trustees in September 2021, leading to various appeals, including those filed by Sanders and by UBCP.

In a unanimous decision by the B.C. Appeals court’s panel of three judges, Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon wrote that the judge in that case failed to address Sanders’ argument that he was no longer a beneficiary of MBS and erred in concluding that the trustees were not bound to amend the trust agreement with the union to match the language in the union’s constitution.

In her decision, Fenlon pointed to the trust agreement’s definition of a beneficiary as being “any person who is a union member who has selected the member benefits trust as the provider of his or her benefits pursuant to the Kelleher Agreement.”

Fenlon noted that, having decided to change his benefits provider, Sanders had no longer selected MBS as his benefits provider and, per the definition, was no longer a beneficiary.

While the trustees argued that the definition only referred to the 1996 Kelleher Agreement, Fenlon said that was an inappropriately narrow view of the definition.

“This narrow reading of ‘beneficiary’ would exclude members who elected to transfer to the MBT under the 2005 transfer agreement because they did not select MBT as their provider ‘pursuant to the Kelleher Agreement.’ Yet, the trustees have accepted that those members would be beneficiaries of the trust,” Fenlon wrote.

She added it would “not make sense” for that definition to be fastened to the original Kelleher Agreement.

She further found that the B.C. Supreme Court judge erred in finding the right to transfer between benefits providers would need to be found in the trust agreement, saying, “it is the union constitution, in particular the Kelleher Agreement, which is the source of those rights, and there was, accordingly, no need for the trust agreement to give members the right to elect to transfer benefits.”

Finally, the appeals court determined that the trustees had to amend the trust agreement to be consistent with the union’s constitution, the paramount document in the dispute. Fenlon noted that, while the trustees have fiduciary duties to uphold, that doesn’t supersede the constitution.