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A Closer Look at Sports Strikes All Over the World

By Zach Bigalke

I’ve already laid out the situation in Spain versus other European leagues, and how the disparity in revenue has led to many clubs simply not paying their players when the accounting dips into the red. With over a hundred of their kinsmen awaiting salary payments from last season, the players in Spain’s top two soccer divisions have gone on strike, postponing the start of the new season and leaving the schedule in flux.

That situation came to an end this weekend, when both sides averted the cancellation of a second weekend of fixtures with a final agreement. Which means that action started almost on time, though the underlying root causes underneath the surface symptoms that caused the strike still exist and are destined to cause more problems in the future.

Instead I want to talk about how a second major European soccer league, slated to begin play this weekend with a full helping of fixtures on tap, might also go on strike. For American sports fans, this is akin to losing the start of the NFL season — something that was a very real possibility throughout the spring and summer. But the key difference is who is initiating the action, and the reasons why such labor actions are being initiated.

In American professional sports, it is more often than not the owners who lock out the players, as corporations have gained more rights than individuals in recent years and sports leagues have been at the forefront of antitrust exemptions.

For fans in Spain and Italy, the biggest clubs won’t be those that are hurt worst by these strikes by the players. By and large it is those select few wealthy clubs that dominate their leagues annually which do not have a problem with meeting the payroll — and in a self-perpetuating cycle, it is those clubs which will be in UEFA competition, will still be generating revenue through merchandise sales. No, it is the minnows who become even more malnourished when these actions occur, which in a spiral to ignominy only makes it that much harder for the unpaid players of those clubs to get last year’s money.

I can’t help but be fascinated by the volatile dynamic that develops between paid laborers — albeit ones who are paid millions of dollars for their services — and the people who employ them when things turn south. Maybe it is just a macabre appreciation for the strike of midnight. Maybe it is some darker than that. Either way, this week let’s answer a few questions about what’s been happening over the past year in sports-labor relations on both sides of the Atlantic…

In general sports run by very different principles. The collective bargaining of one country varies vastly from the collective bargaining within another. The big question is where the power lies.

In a league like Spain’s, where the power is concentrated at the top two clubs and the concept of “league” is more a vacuous and ill-fitting collaborations of the haves and the have-nots than a viable collective effort, the interests of the top dogs are often paramount.

Striking in Spain was an easy decision from a public-relations standpoint. Fans have a hard time relating to athletes fighting their bosses over how big each side’s slice of a gigantic pie will really be… which is why lockouts rarely work out well in the public eye. A lockout is the owners crying poverty, the athletes crying foul and the fans sniffing out the boys who cry wolf.

But fans can relate to not getting paid by their bosses. And in the case of La Liga players in Spain, the players who are most likely to go unpaid are not the galacticos in the Bernabeu or Camp Nou but those largely anonymous masses who toil underappreciated for one fo the other eighteen clubs who split the half of the pie NOT being devoured by the glutton-clubs in Madrid and Barcelona. When you couple that with the inability to just leave your job and seek employment elsewhere, players tethered to their clubs by contracts that are locked in and yield most of the transfer rights to the club (aside from no-trade clauses) have little respite for their grievances save to stop playing.

Once the league — a loose agglomeration of clubs with divergent revenue streams — finally came together to ensure that over $72 million dollars in back payments would be guaranteed to some two-hundred players, settling the strike was easy. The problem for the players is not one of demanding more money… it is merely a matter of the clubs respecting the side of the bargain that they signed on for when they ink a player to a contract.

And if they continue to fail to meet those obligations, a new stipulation has been amended into the CBA that allows any player who goes more than three months without wages from this point forward to seek employment elsewhere. It was a radical move that really showed that, with proper respect, a truly stressful situation can be rationally resolved.

Which leads us to Italy. While my previous article about Spanish football finances showed that Serie A is healthier and more equitable in its revenue generation, with a distribution of resources dispersed through collective bargaining on television rights worldwide that allows payroll to be met by the relegated clubs as well as the giants in Turin and Milan and Rome.

The problem in Italy stems not with back wages but with something entirely different. This has been simmering since the first proposal of strike action back during the winter campaign last season. In the proposed CBA between the players’ union and Serie A that is currently sitting on the table unsigned by the union, there are two articles of contention:

  • Article 4 would have players start to assume the payment of a new government solidarity tax that applies to high-wage earners and goes into effect in time for this season. Certainly these considerations will be written into new contracts, just as other taxes are accounted in wages currently, but the players are against a retroactive lowering of their net payment that was previously agreed.
  • Article 7 would allow clubs to ban players who are no longer wanted or involved in a contract dispute to train with the first team, or even force the players into accepting a transfer.

The problem for the clubs and for Serie A is that, while it is the government’s enactment of a new tax that has helped precipitate this crisis, that same government is fully behind the players in regards to the complete control of a player which the clubs are demanding in Article 7. The FIGC, Italy’s national soccer federation, is backing its players in its battle to maintain the right of players with first-team contracts to train with their teammates even if they have fallen out of favor.

Players have tried to amend that article, even showing willingness to be flexible in the unique restrictions involved in Article 4 that would hamstring a club just as much as a player in regards to unforeseen tax increases. As Lazio defender Guglielmo Stendardo told the press, ”The president of the FIGC had urged clubs to show good common sense by interpreting Article 7 and explaining we have to guarantee the player has professional dignity. It is not an economic issue, but a professional one.”

Therein lies the problem. Labor situations are not merely to attain the best economic situation for everyone. Dignity in the workplace is something that no worker should undervalue. Money is a vacuous thing, which can come and go. But the common thread between both of the recent soccer strikes is the lack of respect shown by clubs to the players that help generate the revenue in the first place.

Unlike a lockout, where economics lie at the heart of things (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), at the heart of any strike action is a demand to be respected. Because, between stalling in paying players for work already rendered and trying to bury spent veterans in obsolescence, the real issue is that players have by and large become commodities rather than human beings for whom the club has obligations. This is no matter of the millionaires fighting the billionaires but a more patrician mentality that has extended from management to labor since the dynamic first emerged several centuries ago.

So the worker takes up the picket, the stadium lies silent and the fan waits for play to resume. The ball is in the league’s court… will Serie A discover a newfound sense of respect for their laborers just like their Spanish counterpart did under duress?

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