I have spoken at length with a number of players throughout the Arena Football League (AFL) this week about the ongoing labor dispute between the league and the Arena Football League Players Union (AFLPU) that has threatened and continues to threaten the league's Silver Anniversary season.
What struck me as I spoke with these players--and even earlier in the season when I've spoken with other players--is that the AFLPU does not appear to be involved with every team. While some teams--such as the Pittsburgh Power, the Orlando Predators, and the Cleveland Gladiators--are clearly influenced enough by the union to organize a work stoppage, other teams are full of players who have had minimal or no contact with the AFLPU.
Union Representation Throughout the League
The union slowly started developing in 2010 but didn't really gain any traction until 2011. Players tell me that union representatives came to them this season and informed teams of the labor rights to which they are entitled. Players were told that every other professional sports league--including minor leagues--have collective bargaining agreements (CBA). The Arena Football League does not.
The AFLPU apparently tried to negotiate a CBA with the AFL last fall, but attempts to reach an agreement have obviously failed to this point.
I have learned this week that union membership in the Arena Football League is optional and that less than half of the teams in the league have union representation. The Power, Predators, and Gladiators are clearly three of those teams, but I don't know exactly how many more teams there are--or who they may be.
Each team has a union representative who votes on any offers made by the league. With less than half of the 17 teams being involved with the union, that means that a maximum of 8 players are apparently voting on previous league offers. How much those union representatives discuss each offer with their teammates likely varies from one team to the next.
I have no idea if this is how unions normally work or not. I have no personal experience with unions. But the explanation as to how things work certainly sheds light on why so many players report that they've never seen any of the offers made by the league, much less voted on them. The majority of the league isn't even in regular contact with the union, and among the minority of the teams that are in contact, it appears as though 8 players, at most, are doing the voting.
By my count, there are 17 teams with rosters of 24 players a piece. That's 408 players. It's no wonder that so many players have no idea what the union is doing and why tension is so high with the league threatening a lockout.
Players and the Union's Leader
The players I spoke with--whose union allegiance varied--predictably had differing opinions of the AFLPU and its executive director, Ivan Soto, who is a lightning rod for fan criticism.
Players who favor the union are generally supportive of Soto. They feel that his tactics--particularly the work stoppages--have accelerated negotiations between the union and the league. They said that no progress was made between the Week 1 work stoppage and the Week 14 work stoppage, but as soon as Cleveland forfeited its game against Pittsburgh at the union's request, the league immediately offered a 106 percent pay increase.
The players take that as an indication that the work stoppage had its desired effect and feel they are fighting a battle for the greater good.
Players who are not involved with the union have a considerably less favorable opinion of Soto, especially now that the league is apparently setting a deadline of Sunday, June 17, for its latest agreement to be accepted by the union, or every player may be fired and the season may be completed using replacement players, or it may be cancelled altogether. (This ultimatum has not been confirmed by the league, but it has been reported to me by multiple sources.)
Justifiably so, players who have had minimal or no contact with Soto and the union are alarmed at the possibility of losing their jobs as a result of something they've had no part in causing. Players are anxious that this could be the last week that they play arena football, and the players who have not been a part of the union are even more anxious.
Other players take a middle ground about Soto. They fully recognize that he is probably not the best person to be speaking for them, but at the same time, he's the only one who has stepped up to help the players improve their conditions. The outlook appears to be that it's better to have less-than-ideal representation than no representation at all.
We Just Want to Play
Players wanted me to make it crystal clear that they absolutely do not want work stoppages. They do not like disappointing fans. The players feel a real connection to the fans, they enjoy it, and they don't want to lose it.
Many players expressed genuine remorse for the 9,000 fans in Cleveland who were told at the last minute that the teams would not be playing, but they felt like the Gladiators had to follow through with the work stoppage in order to regain the league's attention, jump-start negotiations, and continue working toward a greater good.
There was a very common theme in the conversations I had with players: we just want to play. But we also want to be treated fairly.
With luck, both will happen soon.
The author is a Featured Contributor in Sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and holds media credentials with the Chicago Rush and the Arena Football League. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedZoneWriting and on Facebook.