Unifor Faces Off Against Owners in Major Junior Hockey Fight

The gloves are off in what could be one of the most watched labour fights in recent years. The Canadian Hockey League is an umbrella organization administering three hockey leagues with 60 teams in Canada and the US. The CHL supplies the labour, i.e. the players, to North America’s pro leagues, including the NHL (close to half of all NHLers have come up through the CHL). Despite being big business, CHL leagues self-classify as “amateur student-athlete development leagues” and the average player earns a fee or allowance of $35 to $50 a week for 40 plus hours of work, in addition to educational support in the form of a scholarship. I recently spoke with Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, about the union’s campaign for justice in major junior hockey.

SB: Jerry, why do Major Junior hockey players need a union?

JD: In short, because they are exploited. Here you’ve got kids between the ages of 16 and 20, chasing their dream. They are all working for for-profit CHL franchises. This is big business. The Quebec Ramparts just sold for an estimated $25 million dollars. The London Knights make millions in profit every year. The CHL just signed a ten year deal with Rogers cable worth about $80 million. There’s a significant revenue base. Where does that money go? It goes into the pockets of owners and people who run the leagues. These are for-profit companies that have players working for free. They receive small stipends and they are promised that their post-secondary education will be paid for but more than half of them never receive a dime because of outrageous restrictions on how and when they use their scholarships. The people who run these businesses do incredibly well—and they do so on the backs of unpaid labour.

There are other reasons. Take the case of Tim Nolte, a player for the Spruce Grove Saints. He had to spend $20,000 on dental surgery after getting a stick in the face.  The league’s insurance only covered $2500. Players’ accident expenses should be 100 per cent covered. A young man that is working for an employer, a for-profit company, ought to be taken care of. As long as you’re dealing with an organization that frankly is all about profit first and people second, then you’re going to end up with these types of situations. So the only way these issues can be fixed is if the players have a collective voice and a collective agreement.

SB: The CHL argues that small-market teams will go under if the players unionize. What do you make of this argument?

JD: It doesn’t matter what the industry, when you talk about unionizing, owners say the sky will fall. The fact is that every successful professional sports league has revenue sharing. Small market teams are subsidized by big market teams. The key to a successful business model can’t be having your workers work for free. I worked at Bombardier aerospace. Imagine my employer said “okay Jerry, you buy the necessary equipment, and then you can work at Bombardier for four years for free but we’ll give you a scholarship at the end of it. But wait, you have only 18 months to use that scholarship after you’ve finished or you’ll lose it.” If this scenario is not okay in your workplace, it shouldn’t be for major junior hockey players. 95 percent of these players are not going to have a career in professional hockey. So if the average ticket price is $17 are you telling me $1 cannot go to players’ wages? The person that cleans the ice gets paid. The coach gets paid. The manager gets paid. The person who cleans the toilets at the rink gets paid. Yet the person whose labour generates the profit doesn’t get paid.

SB: What’s the current state of the campaign?

JD: Charney Lawyers have commenced a $180 million class action lawsuit on behalf of all current and some former players in the CHL.  The lawsuit seeks compensation to the players for their back wages, overtime pay, holiday pay and vacation pay which should have been paid to them while they played. If the court decides that the players are employees, not “amateur student-athletes” then the fee violates minimum wage legislation in every Province and State where the teams play hockey. This process will take about a year but we suspect that when the owners realize they’re in huge trouble we might then be able to sit down and have a common sense discussion about how we take care of these young men. I’ve also had a lot of discussions with the Minister of Sport and the Minister of Labour. So we’re waiting to see how the government responds as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length

Published in Canadian Dimension 49(3) May/June 2015

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