Unions and Players Associations: Different Work, Same Values

As fans, we tend to think of top athletes as gods or heroes, holding our hopes for our favourite team’s victory in their hands. But, for all professional athletes, sport goes beyond fun and games – it’s a career. A game – whether its on the field, the ice, or baseball diamond – is just another day at the office.

With football season just beginning and Hockey Night in Canada on the horizon, it is important to remember that, behind the scenes, each leagues’ players association works hard to ensure every player receives the same rights that all workers deserve.

Players associations – like unions – exist to better the lives of their members. Both groups work towards the same goal: to enhance the welfare of their members. Professional athletes are workers; therefore, like all workers, they deserve fair pay, benefits, decent work hours, and a safe working environment.

The Rise of Major Players Associations

Labour unions exist to combat unfair working conditions: workers demand healthier, safer work environments, adequate wages, and the right to organize to collectively bargain for their rights. While goalies, quarterbacks and second-basemen aren’t necessarily who we think of as the faces of the labour movement, the pioneers of North America’s major sports leagues were, at one point, victims of terrible treatment, harsh expectations and unequal wages.

Take the NHL, for example. Before the formation of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) in 1967, it was common for NHL players to work summer jobs to support their families. Even Tim Horton – star defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1955 and namesake of Canada’s classic coffee franchise – worked construction in the summer months. And when he broke his leg on the ice, he was not paid for the games he missed. With no healthcare plan and no income, Horton’s family struggled to pay the bills.

Treatment like this inspired the Detroit Red Wings’ Ted Lindsay to rally towards the formation of a union during the late 1950s. However, as Lindsay and other players tried to organize, the NHL traded players away or pushed them down to the minor leagues in order to prevent them from rallying together. Finally, in 1967, enough players united and convinced the owners to recognize the demands of the NHLPA.

Other major labour organizations in the sport include the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), Major League Soccer Players Union, the National Basketball Referees Association, the World Umpires Association, and the WNBA Players Association – the first and only labour union comprised entirely of professional female athletes. These players associations each grew out of lack of player support and protection – the NFL, for example, had no pension plan, no minimum wage, no health benefits, and the average salary was $8,000. Players associations currently represent all players within their leagues in matters concerning wages, hours, working conditions, benefits and contract negotiations.

Fighting for Players’ Rights – Everywhere

Players associations are responsible for the protection of their athletes. Due to the high-profile nature of their sports, association-employer issues can sometimes play out in the public eye, just as employer-union issues are often at the forefront of the media. For example, the controversial “Take a Knee” movement, started by then- San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a protest against police brutality and social injustice, drove the NFL to create a new policy surrounding the playing of the national anthem. Now, the players must “stand and show respect” while the national anthem plays – in other words, kneeling is prohibited. The NFLPA recently filed a grievance with the NFL, stating the new policy is inconsistent with collective bargaining and infringes on players’ rights.

This act of filing a grievance – a common union practice – shows how players associations stand up to their players’ employers, the leagues themselves, in order to protect their rights.

Just like the efforts of labour unions help achieve better rights for all workers – even those who are not union members – players associations are committed to making sport a better place for all participants, not only the players from within their league. In December 2017, leaders from the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB players associations helped unveil a universal declaration of players’ rights. This declaration lays out the players’ right to unionize and collectively bargain, express opinions freely, and receive equal pay for equal work. This declaration came from the World Players Association, which is affiliated with 100 organizations and represents 85,000 professional athletes. As this universal declaration demonstrates, players associations across the world and across a wide range of sports are committed to protecting their athletes from unfair treatment.

While watching professional sports, it can be easy to forget that high-level athletes are still people,just like us, making a living doing what they do best. Players associations, while they support world-class athletes playing in sold-out stadiums, have more in common with unions than one might think. These associations play their part in the labour movement as a whole, ensuring that all people who make their living through sport receive the basic human rights that all workers deserve.