By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 20, 2020) US Soccer Players - Soccer in Canada is in the midst of a renaissance. The nation will co-host the North American World Cup in 2026. Alphonso Davies is starring for mighty Bayern Munich, the headliner of what could be a golden generation of talent. Somewhere close to a million people are playing the sport from coast to coast. Last year, the Canadian Premier League launched to positive reviews, bringing back nationwide professional soccer with an emphasis on serving domestic fans and players alike.
Like its counterparts elsewhere, the CPL is weathering the COVID-19 storm by staging a bubble tournament on Prince Edward Island. Dubbed "the Island Games," the event kicked off last week. It includes the debut of expansion side Atletico Ottawa, operated by its parent club in Madrid, and will peak with a championship final next month. Should it unfold safely and smoothly, it's another positive milestone for the league and the country's soccer landscape overall.
Yet a simmering issue threatens to sidetrack that progress. CPL players seek to unionize under the banner of the Professional Footballers Association Canada. They're growing increasingly frustrated with what they consider an intransigent and adversarial stance taken by the league's leadership.
"It's a long process. We're not there where we want to be," PFACan president and Pacific FC defender Marcel de Jong told USSoccerPlayers.com by phone from PEI on Thursday. "We have the right intentions for the CPL, and we want to do good by the players and represent them. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it the same as we do."
Under current Canadian labor laws, sports fall under "provincial jurisdiction," in contrast to the more streamlined National Labor Relations Board process in the United States. That means if the league does not voluntarily recognize PFACan, the union in this case must go club by club, province by province, to officially complete the certification process. That can take up to a year and is subject to any number of delaying and contesting tactics by the employer. Some provincial governments are union-friendly, while others are outright hostile.
"Had COVID not created this vast interruption to all of our economies and industries, we feel we would have dumped applications in, or created a business case for voluntary recognition, and we'd be at the bargaining table right now," explained PFACan executive director Dan Kruk this week. "Now with COVID, we've stated publicly: We're willing to forego any meaningful bargaining [in the short term], meaning we're not going to sit down and demand we start talking about monetary items. Let us simply be the voice of the players as we transition and navigate this COVID crisis."
With an ownership lineup full of Canadian Football League owners and other very wealthy investors reportedly making a minimum 10-year commitment to the project, the CPL appears to have ample financial means at its disposal. Yet in April it unilaterally imposed a 25% pay deferral on its players with little to no warning or consultation. That was soon converted to a straight cut, including lower-end contracts that were already flirting with poverty-level wages.
Kruk notes that this happened mere days after a Concacaf COVID-19 transition committee led by confederation chief Victor Montagliani, who is Canadian himself, released what Kruk termed "strong recommendations that national associations and their leagues in FIFA regions work with clubs and their unions, and in the absence of unions, with their national and/or sub-national law. That didn't occur [with CPL]."
Players' aggravation has grown to the point that PFACan this week released specific salary information, revealing that "over half of CPL players earn less than $22,000, and many earn less than $15,000" per season.
"When the wages are already not that great and then plus another 25 on top of that, it's a struggle and we have to find solutions," said de Jong. "We get where the league is coming from. It's the beginning, it's a new league, everybody's making sacrifices in this pandemic. We get it, we just wish that we were involved in any discussions."
De Jong is one of many former MLSers to take part in the CPL, which has branded itself as keeping the interests of Canadian players and player development close to heart. That reflects the mixed bag the country has experienced with MLS and other American leagues that Canadian clubs have participated in over the years. Many on the domestic scene wanted their own league. Now the new league risks ignoring the lessons of its southern counterpart in regard to labor relations.
"They're very happy to go back to work," said Kruk of his members' perspectives on the Island Games. "But they would like to create some certainty in terms of creating a template for all players that they can launch from, not just as a collective but as an individual in conjunction with their agents to bargain what they believe to be an appropriate wage packet and a set of working conditions."
Much like MLS in the early 2000s, CPL players are between their desire to be partners in this fledgling endeavor and their experiences of what a fully professional setup looks like in other countries. They don't want a pitched battle with the executives. The question is whether they'll have any other choice.
"The league needs to recognize us," de Jong said. "At some point they have to. In order for the league to grow they need to recognize us so that players from outside of Canada who want to come in and play in Canada, they need to know that this league is organized and run properly and has a PFA backing them up if something happens. It's never been our goal, our intention, to fight with the league. We want to do this in harmony, that's our first intention, obviously, we want to be there to help the league in any way we can, also. It's not just for the players, it's also for the league."
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Will the pandemic fundamentally change soccer on TV?
- American soccer viewers get another reality check
- Concacaf's new 2022 qualifying format sets expectations in the region
- The near future of the USMNT according to Gregg Berhalter
Logo courtesy of PFACan