Equity has instructed its 40,000 members to refuse to do any new British television advertisements after 1 May, when the present agreement expires, unless the previous terms apply.
Among the household names who do voice-overs are union members such as Angus Deayton and Harry Enfield, as well as Richard Wilson, Michael Gambon and Zoe Wanamaker, all three of whom have taken active roles in union protests in the past. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), which represents agencies, is keen to cut fees on the grounds that they are out of kilter with payments for on-screen appearances and with payments for voice-overs in other European countries.
Graham Hinton, president of IPA, said: "UK voice-over fees are nine times the level of Germany and eight times the level of France. And they are way ahead of those for visual artists - with none of the restrictions."
Voice-over work is lucrative. The average job takes little more than an hour, for which the studio fee is between pounds 80 and pounds 300, and the actor will net a further pounds 2,000 in repeat fees. One advertising insider described the work as "money for old rope".
Equity defends the levels of payments, arguing that doing voice-overs is a highly skilled job. "Everyone thinks they could do a voice-over, but they cannot," said Christine Payne, head of Equity's television department. "Acting is a skill, actors are highly trained and the right performance can make a lot of money for the advertiser."
Nick Phillips, director general of IPA, said last night: "The agreement lasted for five years, from autumn 1991 to autumn 1996. It has already been extended for a period with a view to continuing discussions. Now agencies will be operating without a formal agreement. What will happen is really uncharted territory."