Sunday, 28 August 2011

Striking in sports

On Thursday, the Spanish footballers' union AFE and La Liga reached an agreement to end the strike which delayed the opening games of the season. Meanwhile, a similar strike in the Italian Serie A looks set to continue until 10 September.

Image from the 1987 NFL strike
Sports journalist Rich Hook offers some very interesting comment on this over at Left Foot Forward;
Both unions have demonstrated the power they hold, but unlike the NFLPA (American football) and NBPA (basketball), they have yet to use this power outside their own field.

During the NFL lockout, the players’ association lent their support to strikes by Wisconsin public sector workers, California country club staff and Indianapolis hotel workers and in return the players’ unions in hockey, basketball and baseball gave the NFLPA their backing.

For a country with just 12 per cent union density it’s impressive for a group of the highest earnings to say:
“When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps all workers by raising community standards.”
This spirit is yet to spread to English sport, where Premier League players like William Gallas and Luka Modric are more inclined to threaten to score own goals or refuse to play in order to force through lucrative transfers. Only more socially conscious footballers, like Rio Ferdinand, are even prepared to comment on wider issues such as the riots.

What the AFE and AIC have shown is that it is possible for unions to still have an impact in the modern age with a desire to agree shared terms for all ‘workers’ in their field. Both leagues still have a way to go, with an effective collective agreement based on greater revenue sharing across the league needed (like the new NFL CBA) but they have shown the way forward for the Premier League.

Rather than going on ‘personal strikes’ (e.g. Pierre van Hooijdonk) to engineer transfers they could work together to improve average earnings across the Football League pyramid though it may take a mass-debt situation like in La Liga for this to happen.

Then if they get their own leagues in order, they might even start to come out in support of workers in other industries especially given the economic crisis in the PIIGGS countries.
This certainly goes a long way to answering the question of how unions of professional sports players might fit into the wider workers' movement. Especially given the apparent disconnect from most workers in terms of salary and conditions.

The problem that it doesn't answer is how we get to that point. In October, I wrote a bit about football's capital crisis - which has particularly come home to roost in the Spanish situation - and this may play its part. Certainly, it is likely that any such movement may grow from the poorer clubs first, and exert an upward pressure. At the same time, the debt crisis impacting on how well clubs could meet the demands of personal strikes may also force a move to collective action.

But there is a role too for other groups, and particularly supporters' unions. Groups such as Spirit of Shankly have already managed to link the fight for a better deal for fans to social regeneration and cooperative (if not explicitly anti-capitalist) ideas. Making connections with players' unions fits in naturally to this notion.

At the same time, offering such support opens the way for generalising the struggles of other workers within football - from the referees who are already organised enough to take strike action to the shop workers who sell merchandising and tickets and who would likely benefit from specific organising drives. After all, if there is one group of people best placed to defy the laws on secondary action without fear that such defiance isn't already generalised, it would be footballers. And the influence of such figures doing these things cannot be doubted given how much of a following the sport has.

Of course, we're not at that point yet. But there are enough examples of this kind of culture out there, as well as a capital crisis in football and a broader climate of class conflict to catalyse it, that such a situation is not unthinkable.