By Jason Edwards
Professional soccer arrived in Halifax last Saturday. The Halifax Wanderers FC defeated Hamilton Forge 2-1 on an exciting second-half goal by Columbian striker Luis Alberto Perea.
The Canadian Premier League (CPL) is in its infancy; this was the Wanderers’ second game, their first on the Wanderers’ Grounds. But while fans are enthusiastic about the new league, questions remain.
One outstanding question is how the players will articulate their collective voice.
Athlete bargaining power
While we often associate athletes with fame and fortune, professional and semi-professional players often suffer from a deficit of bargaining power against team owners.
Players will do whatever it takes to get their shot. Young people are lined up behind them, ready to take their place. While there is a glut of willing players, there is a dearth of teams to play for. Athletes compete against one another for time on the field, but teams enjoy a guarantee that their competition won’t increase.
This asymmetry in bargaining power can have serious consequences for athletes.
In April 2017, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice certified a class action by Ontario Hockey League players against the league for violating minimum employment standards, like the minimum wage, guaranteed breaks, and overtime pay. In April of this year, the plaintiffs in that case successfully added various tort claims to their action, including breach of contract, negligence, breach of duty of honesty, good faith and fair dealing, and conspiracy. Similar class actions have been started against the CHL, WHL, QMJHL, and the teams in those leagues.
Unfortunately for prospective hockey players in Ontario, last November the provincial government took steps to exclude those players from minimum employment standards. [Read RankandFile.ca’s report about it here.]
Ontario’s exemptions are similar to those made in 2016 to Nova Scotia’s General Labour Standards Code Regulations and Minimum Wage Order (General) that exempt athletes from many labour standards, even when those athletes meet the definition of “employee” for the purposes of the Labour Standards Code.
Athletes can reduce the power imbalance in professional sports by joining together to collectively bargain.
In many professional sports, players are represented by players’ unions. Athletes in the “Big Four” – Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League – all enjoy collective representation.
Despite many of these athletes being world-renowned superstars, they speak with a collective voice through their unions. Collective voice amplifies athletes’ bargaining power, whoever the athletes are.
Professional soccer leagues, as well, are no strangers to collective bargaining.
Players in Major League Soccer, the top Canadian-American soccer league, are members of the MLS Players Association. Their terms and conditions of employment are governed by a sophisticated collective agreement.
In late last-year, the United Soccer League, a professional league comprised mostly of teams from the United States and Ottawa Fury FC, recognized the USL Players Association as the players’ exclusive bargaining agent.
A collective voice matters
The Professional Fighters Association, a prospective union for athletes who compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, explains the rationale for forming a union this way:
Professional sports history shows how the formation of an association to collectively bargain employment terms has dramatically increased the compensation and working conditions of an organized membership. These associations have helped players financially and given them control over their careers and their life after they finish competing.
There remain many unanswered questions about the CPL. Will it attract fans and the revenues they bring with them? Is it sustainable? How will the athletes be treated?
Without some form of association, CPL players’ performance on the field will be overshadowed by a massive imbalance in bargaining power against their employer teams.
The most effective way for these athletes to change that power imbalance is to join together and speak with a collective voice through a players’ union. A single soccer player is ineffective on the pitch alone. The same is true when they negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment. They play as a unit; they should also bargain as one.