‘The League Is Not Hearing Us’: A Deep Dive Into The Pro-Union Stance Of Several CPL Players
The drive for the Canadian Premier League to recognize a players’ union has picked up a lot of momentum this year, and particularly last week: with the players putting on a unified pro-union front, the conversation about what these athletes both want and need is at the forefront of Canadian soccer discussions – though it’s a one-sided conversation thus far.
We spoke with fourteen athletes from a multitude of Canadian Premier League clubs, all but one whom preferred to remain anonymous for the purposes of this article. PFA Canada’s Dan Kruk also spoke with us on the matter, though the Canadian Premier League itself had not responded to a comment request at the time of this article.
Contextually, it’s important to note that pressure has been mounting on the league to open a conversation with PFA Canada this year: the prospective union obtained FIFPRO Membership, got the backing of supporters’ groups from coast-to-coast, and was coming off of a high-enrolment year following the league’s decision to turn a 25% salary deferral into a permanent cut in 2020.
In response to these pressures, the league showed some transparency in releasing salary cap information for the current season, though when commissioner David Clanachan was directly asked about holding a conversation with PFA Canada before the current season began, he deflected on the matter.
PFA Canada Executive Director Dan Kruk says that the Canadian Premier League was due to get back to the players association at the end of June, but never did. Thus far, no significant conversation between the two parties has taken place, and there doesn’t appear to be any concrete plans for such.
Despite the stonewalling on that front, the union found itself thrust back into the Canadian soccer spotlight after four Canadian Premier League clubs took to the pitch in pro-union shirts last week, a landmark gesture that prompted renewed discourse about the subject – especially given that this kind of public protest took a lot of unification and solidarity from CPL athletes, who themselves took a risk in doing so.
I think it’s been a common conversation going on around the bubble amongst the players, figuring out the best way to stand together and bring that discussion back up, to recognize the Players Football Association. I think it’s been a situation where there’s been some conditions here at the bubble, the heat and other factors, that if a union were involved we could definitely as players have a voice at the table to discuss our needs as a player pool. I think today was a day, coming to the end of the bubble, we wanted to make that stand as players and we made a unified decision to go out there and show that we’re not just going to go away and be told what to do, that we’ll stand together and be recognized.Anonymous CPL Athlete
The idea to don PFA Canada shirts ahead of kickoff had been talked about amongst players for some time beforehand, but it got a big momentum push when Atletico Ottawa goalkeeper Dylon Powley opted to wear his en route a match against FC Edmonton last week.
Powley’s gesture was a catalyst in turning those tentative plans into affirmative action. Just three days later, four CPL sides (FC Edmonton, Halifax Wanderers, Pacific FC, and Atletico Ottawa) marched onto the pitch to put on a unified pro-union front, and it made waves.
While there has been talk that the players will be fined for the gesture, as of the time of this article none of the players have heard anything concrete about such – and the general sentiment is that they’d be surprised if the league did so, though more than one OneSoccer pundit believes it’ll happen.
When we did it, I feel like not many guys took into consideration the possibilities of fines. We’re focused on the football side. The league can do whatever they want with it, and I’m sure it doesn’t look good if they choose to fine the players for it. We’ve gotten support from the fans and whatnot. It’ll be interesting to see what they do, but I don’t think guys were worried. We’ve got some confidence from the players association that they can help. We’re happy to get the message across, but we’ll see what happens with it and how the league responds and reacts to it.Anonymous CPL Player
So, what drove the players to put themselves at risk by stepping forward in such a public manner? The players we spoke to say there were driven to the gesture after feeling devalued over the league’s first three years: they want a voice at the table so that their thoughts are heard, recognized, and considered.
Obviously, there’s a reason why the players feel like they need to voice that. I’m sure people can dig as deep as they want into it, and at the end of the day it’s because the league is not hearing us. We were told a lot of things before we came into the bubble, and not a lot of those things were given or shown to us. You start to lose respect for the league when things like that happen, and instead of allowing us to sit down with them and talk about it – which they seem to be ignoring – the only other way is to start doing public stuff to get the fans to see it, to notice it, to get it on social media and get people to talk about it, because there really is no other way. We’ve tried to talk to people in the league, so at some point the respect isn’t there and we have to take things into our hands.Anonymous CPL Athlete
The number one issue that came up amongst the athletes we spoke to was this lack of a voice, with other issues include fixture congestion, playing conditions, and a lack of transparency from the league itself. “We’re all here to represent our clubs to the best of our abilities,” said one three-year CPL athlete, “but at the end of the day we’re the product on the field, and we need to feel like we’re valued here.”
Those words tracked with third-year CPL goalkeeper Dylon Powley: “100%. We just want to be informed about what’s going on,” said the 24-year-old, who was perplexed when the league teased its full 2021 season schedule without letting the players in on it beforehand. “How is it possible that the players that have to uproot their life, move to a different city, and play all these games, how is it is possible that we get the schedule at the same time as someone who watches? That’s what we’re fighting for.”
He wasn’t the only one left scratching his head in that moment, which drew public comments from the likes of Nathan Ingham and Sergio Camargo, too.
They’re not considerate of any of the players’ lives. There are players that work second jobs, have families, and it’s not like this league is paying most players a high enough salary that it’s their one-and-only job. If we’re at the bottom of totem as far as priorities goes, then it’s tough to put a product on the field for them week-in and week-out.Anonymous CPL Player
Across our conversations, more than one athlete surmised that they get most of their news from Twitter. Even head coaches are left in the dark on some matters, like when Tommy Wheeldon Jr. was unaware of a Canadian Championship match that had been leaked in an FC Edmonton e-mail blast to season ticket holders a day prior.
While no current head coach has really offered a comment on the unionization issue (though former Eddies head coach Jeff Paulus did has been open about his support for PFA Canada), Powley says that that he hasn’t heard of any coaches pushing back against the shirt-related gestures. As he puts it, if the coaches aren’t going to say something against it, that speaks volumes on its own.
The former Eddies goalkeeper has become somewhat of a talisman for the pro-union front, which Kruk says currently represents well over 80% of the player pool in terms of enrolment this year. While Powley has no problem putting his name out there – he says he’s all-in at this point, and ready to step forward in a constructive and helpful manner – not every player feels so comfortable about doing so.
If I speak out personally against the league, I’m facing not being able to play in the league ever again because that’s just the way things are. We’ve seen in the past that this is what happens. It’s a fine balance between standing up for what you believe in, but we’re still playing and in the midst of our careers so we don’t want anything to happen to them, so we must do things professionally and in the right avenues that we can.Anonymous CPL Player
Of course, that isn’t to say the players only had negative so say about the CPL. Far from it, in fact. “They’ve gone a great job, and I will never discredit the CPL,” says one athlete, “they’ve done everything possible to get the league started and up and going for us to continue doing what we love, but ultimately if you want to get the best from us we have to have a seat at the table. That’s just for us. I hope it continues on in the season, and the players continue to stay unified so that this conversation with the commissioner can happen.”
It’s a common sentiment: the players repeatedly say they just want to focus on football and appreciate the opportunity to play professionally in Canada, but it’s not always under the most ideal conditions.
I will say that the league has done a decent job so far. It’s difficult when you’re three years into making a new league and you have COVID-19 hit over the past year, you know? I think the league is trying their best, but at the same time there’s still more they can do. I think what they don’t realize is that they don’t need to be afraid of the players association, because it’ll benefit everybody. It’s not like the PFA will be banging on their door to say we need this and we need that, it’ll just be to open up a bridge of communication, and I think that’s the most important part. It’s not necessarily making change right away, it’s making sure that there’s somebody looking out for the players who is always in touch with the league.Anonymous CPL Athlete
It’s not clear what could potentially come next in terms of player protests: none of the players ultimately expect any kind of strike or boycott, with most emphasizing that they just want to be shown respect and get a voice at the table. The general sentiment is that if players are continually ignored, however, this issue will keep growing into something bigger.
I think if they really want to grow the league, they need to take care of the product, and at the end of the day that’s all of our players. If they don’t do that, it’s going to hit a boiling point with a lot of players and it’ll be something bigger than just wearing t-shirts.Anonymous CPL Player
Of course, there’s always the elephant in the room: when one talks of a union, the mind often jumps right to the financials. That’s what most think of right from the get-go when it comes to unions, and that’s a subject that we brought up in our talks.
When the players we talked to were asked about it, the response was universal: their drive to be represented by PFA Canada isn’t about the money, but instead about being heard to have more transparency from the league, and perhaps better scheduling. “I just don’t want them to continue to deflect when asked about us,” said one athlete, “there’s so much momentum we can gain together if we sit at the table and have a chat. That’s all we’re asking for. Not to hike up the salaries, or this, or that, but for this league to continue to grow and mature, we need a players union.”
For Powley, it’s the same: it’s about basic gestures of respect and professionalism.
We’re not fighting for bigger wages. We’re not fighting for gourmet meals in the bubble. We’re fighting for the regular season schedule to be released more than a week in advance so people can plan their lives. That’s what we’re fighting for here.Dylon Powley
The only financial matter that did pop up was the 25% salary deferral that turned into a cut, which is something that PFA Canada’s Dan Kruk says his players association hasn’t forgotten about: it’s still within the two-year statute to register an official complaint with the FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber, though PFA Canada is still considering what the best course of action is. He says CPL athletes past and present are still ready to file complaints on the matter.
That permanent pay cut also sent a number of CPL athletes below their respective provincial minimum wage laws, says Kruk, which is an entirely different issue to take a look at.
Beyond that statute, one player offered that in the inaugural CPL season his club had progressed in the Canadian Championship, but he never received the bonuses stipulated in his contract or a promised per diem for travelling on the road. As he put it, that few hundred bucks would have gone a long way in putting food on the table for him. It’s fair to say that a union would have likely sorted that out in short order. Instead, the player is no longer with that club.
For Dan Kruk, these issues don’t just lie with the burgeoning domestic league: after the salary deferral, he would have liked to see Canada Soccer step in to protect its players from what he called a completely arbitrary decision. In his opinion, he says, the FIFA-sanctioned governing body had a responsibility to protect those players, and it failed.
“It’s really difficult when you get the rug swept under you like that,” said one veteran athlete, who states he’s never experienced anything quite like that throughout his career, “it’s disingenuous.”
One thing that was completely unanimous is that none of the players thought the ownership groups themselves were at fault. “I think the ownership groups just need to see what they’re actually putting money into,” said one athlete, “they’re phenomenal people, but they don’t see what we’re actually going through.” Another added that “the owners have nothing to do with this, every single players knows the money that those groups have put up to grow the game here.”
Another sentiment that both the players and PFA Canada have been quick to temper is fans who have jumped right up to the idea of boycotting the league unsubscribing from OneSoccer, which is a step neither party wants:
This league is precious, and the players really cherish these opportunities to play at home, showcase their skills, and potentially go on to greener pastures. Having said all of that, these are players who recognize that they need a formal voice in all aspects of their experience in the Canadian professional level.Dan Kruk
The reactions to the bubble itself were fairly mixed, but leaned positive in the circumstances: most of the two-bubble veterans offered that the league had put in good improvements compared to what they saw in Charlottetown last year. The food, as a whole, seems to have been of better quality, and the league did a lot little things right – though the Radisson itself offered less space, and the league’s promise of some ‘outside expeditions’ ultimately ended up being a movie night across the street.
I actually find the league ran a good bubble. I think you can always improve on things, and the league knows they could have done certain things better. But, especially talking to some of the guys in the bubble last year, this year was a big improvement in terms of food, access to resources, and stuff like that.Anonymous CPL Player
Understandably, several athletes still described it as a rough experience, with a handful lamenting the lack of mental health resources available, and others finding it tough to see the world open up outside their own windows, and watching several of the league’s own head office personnel return home after two weeks in the bubble. As one player puts it, if one starts letting the small things get to you in the bubble, it’s easy to find yourself in a tough place mentally.
Some of the other complaints saw players unhappy to be placed in school buses without air conditioning after training sessions, especially on 35 degree days. “When the windows can’t open, and you’re drenched in sweat, it’s not the best feeling or look,” says one athlete, while another simply surmised that it was “simply unprofessional”.
The only real back-and-forth communication with players ahead of the bubble was a captain’s call where each team’s appointed leader had a chance to voice concerns. One Captain we spoke with felt like they were, by and large, ignored. Once the bubble got underway, there was no follow-up call: the league sent an email to the captains stating it was working on getting some things sorted, but he says that nothing ever came of it.
All-told, the players want people to know that it hasn’t been easy making the sacrifices they have for both mind and body. “People need to know about this,” says one of those players, “I think ownership groups needs to see it and see what they’re actually putting their money into. To not have any real people with soccer history in the CPL, David Clanachan, Glen Johnson, the people who are calling the shots – none of none of them have played the sport or know what it’s like to playing eight games within 25 days. They don’t know what it’s like.”
We’re all happy to do what we love, we’re not taking it for granted. We all want to keep playing, but it’s very hard for us to play three games in a week. It’s not only hard for us, but the product isn’t as good on the field. It’s watered down, it’s difficult to play. A lot of us are going through really difficult times on our bodies.Anonymous CPL Player
In terms of injuries, each club seems to have gone through its own crisis, whether that be York United playing without any natural centre-backs, athletes like Brandon John and Andrew Jean-Baptiste sustaining season-ending injuries, or Chris Mannella trying to see out the last minutes of a game on one leg. The fixtures in the bubble came thick and fast, and while players say they understand the reasoning behind it, it’s been a brutal experience.
For me, to see my teammates hobbling around on one leg, that stuff kills me. There’s guys on this team that are 25 an they’re walking around like they’re 45. For me, that’s too many games.Dylon Powley
With the bubble finally wrapping – and we all hope it’s the last time anyone has to say that – players are excited to get back to their home markets, see their families, and have a bit of normalcy to life. Still, they all say that it doesn’t quiet their motives for having the player pool represented through PFA Canada to the league. Another says he simply hopes that the sacrifices they’ve made in the bubble aren’t swept under the rug with a PR statement from the league that, he says, would be lying if it said they had been open and transparent.
As for what’s next, PFA Canada has already made it clear that they’re willing to go province-by-province to obtain union certification if the Canadian Premier League doesn’t want to voluntarily recognize the union, which said it would table collective bargaining rights for the time being if the league would give them voluntary recognition.
We’re absolutely prepared to do that. We’re trying to say to the league, we’ve got the support. The players want us to represent them in a formal relationship with the league and its clubs. We can do it the nice way, which is a voluntary recognition, or we can find ourselves sitting across the table at labour relations board hearings and going through a vote. It’s up to them.Dan Kruk
Should things ultimately go that route, it’ll likely be a lengthy and expensive process for both sides: PFA Canada will file an application with each provincial relations board, get cards signed by athletes, and go through a process of approval to trigger a hearing. At that point, both the club and the league can submit an objection, and then if things progress, a vote will be ordered and the union needs a majority of the voters – who will remain anonymous to the league and club – to be certified as a union.
Kruk couldn’t say which provinces will go first in terms of such a process, but it’s the route that most players expect will take place. “I think it’s all going to be a longer process than we’d like,” laments one, with another adding that the league avoiding a conversation about such will simply make things worse, but that’s how he thinks it’ll go.
For Kruk, he states that the emerging professional soccer economy is way too fragile to take some big punches, but he’s afraid the league is constructing a big hit here. It’s one he also fears will be a pseudo-‘taxpayer-funded’ fight from the CPL, with the league having obtained income from both PEI and Manitoba for hosting its CPL bubbles there, along with having availed itself to the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy Program in 2020. Those taxpayer-backed savings might now be used to help the Canadian Premier League attempt to quash the formation of a union, assuming things go that way.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. I feel like most guys don’t expect anything to happen right away, but it’s about slowly causing that change and hopefully seeing improvement.Anonymous CPL Player
Kruk also made mention that while the league has now publicly committed to a minimum player salary, until it’s codified and signed off by players through their representatives and the league, the verbal commitment doesn’t mean much – though one imagines it’d be a PR disaster for the league if it went back on its word after such a commitment.
We talked with some CPL athletes who have had union protections at previous clubs, and they insisted that it’s by far the better option for all involved. “That’s why the MLS and USL have grown, they’ve used the voices of their players and grown. Once the union has taken formation within the league and both the players and the league are working together, it drives the league forward. That’s all we want as players,’ says one of those veterans.
It’s a big difference. Just having the players association for the league to have to communicate and work with adds so much more to the professionalism of the league, but also to the quality: there’s things that they can talk about and discuss to make sure both players and the league are on the same page. That can go for the number of games within a season, we’ve all got a jam-packed schedule over the next three months, and I feel like if there was a players association to have some negotiations with the league about it, there could have been a better solution. Everything from player safety, player contracts, load management, it’s important to have.Anonymous CPL Player
While all of the players we’ve talked to believe they’re in for a long-haul struggle to have their voices heard, they firmly believe that it’s inevitable that they’ll achieve collective representation at some point down the line. Kruk says he’ll give the league every opportunity to voluntarily recognize the union, but if the league continues to stay quiet, “that’s on them – it’s a business decision.”
We want the product on the field and to continue playing games, but we also want a seat at the table. A conversation is only respect. We’re organized. We’re prepared. We’re supported and backed by every supporters group. I think we’re just ready to have a conversation, that’s all it is. We want to move forward and to grow the game in this country.Anonymous CPL Player
The Canadian Premier League is in the midst of its third-ever season, with its clubs currently supporting 187 athletes including player loans and contracted athletes not currently registered for each team’s 23-man squad. Their futures will be significantly impacted by what eventually happens next, though it’s looking like it’ll be a long, drawn-out process for the kind of change and protections they’re hoping for.