Football lock-out prevented

In January 2004, the Danish Professional Football Arbitration Court ruled that the Danish League Association had not given sufficient notice that it was suspending its collective agreement with the Danish Football Players' Union. This ruling prevented a lock-out of players which had been due to start on 22 January, in a dispute over new transfer rules. After the verdict, and following a proposal for a compromise from FIFA, it appears likely that the parties will conclude a new collective agreement for professional football in the coming months.

On Sunday 18 January 2004, a three-person legal panel averted a potentially historic industrial conflict between professional football clubs and players - the Danish League Association (Divisionsforeningen) and the Danish Football Players' Association (Spillerforeningen) (DK0107126N). The three members of the Danish Professional Football Arbitration Court (Dansk Fodbolds Voldgiftsret) ruled, following a meeting in Brøndby, that the association of professional clubs, Divisionsforeningen, had not given due warning before suspending a collective agreement between clubs and the players' union. The players were entitled to a three-month warning of suspension, the court ruled.

The ruling effectively averted a lock-out of players that was to take effect on 22 January, and means that the players may be subject to a lock-out no earlier than 1 June 2004. The ruling will force Divisionforeningen and Spillerforeningen to enter new negotiations, and the first step in this direction has already been taken (see below). The two associations hope that they will be able to conclude to a new collective agreement for professional football in the coming months.

Lock-out threatened

On 30 October 2003, the director of Divisionforeningen send a letter to his counterpart at the Spillerforeningen players’ union, in which he announced the suspension of the collective agreement currently in force. At the same time, Divionsforeningen announced a lock-out of players with effect from 1 December 2003. He wrote that: 'The consequence hereof will be that none of the players covered by the collective agreement, and who are members of Spillerforeningen, from this date on will receive wages nor will they meet at work.'

This led the managing director of the Brøndby IF club, which was due to play Barcelona FC in the UEFA Cup tournament in February, to say that the players 'just could leave Spillerforeningen'. There would then be no obstacle to the players receiving wages and playing football.

The background to the announcement of the lock-out was a dispute over new transfer rules for players under the age of 23 issued by football's world governing body, FIFA, which gives clubs the right to demand compensation for training and developing young players if these players are transferred to clubs in other countries after the expiry of their contracts. Spillerforeningen, unlike Divisionforeningen, does not want the compensation rules for young players to be part of its collective agreement with the Danish clubs. Another problem between the parties was players’ insurance. They are entitled to be insured against injuries, but large increases in the premiums have caused problems with clubs meeting the payments, and the clubs want to change the collective agreement's provisions on this point.

New talks

After the verdict of the Danish Professional Football Arbitration Court, the parties agreed to meet again and try to find a compromise. FIFA and the game's European governing body, UEFA, along with the players’ international organisation, FIFPro, became involved, and this resulted in a proposal for a compromise, with FIFA as the driving force, covering four points:

  • Spillerforeningen should recognise FIFA’s international transfer rules over compensation for training and development after the expiry of a young player's contract, where the player is transferred;
  • a lawsuit involving the Danish Football Association (Dansk Boldspil Union, DBU) and Spillerforeningen should be postponed to a later date (Spillerforeningen has accused DBU of changing rules laid down in the collective agrements);
  • Spillerforeningen and Divisionsforeningen should have the possibility to negotiate alternative Danish fees for international transfers, rather than the indicative framework set by FIFA; and
  • Spillerforeningen and Divisionsforeningen should have the possibility to earmark for further development of new talent the compensation for training and development that Danish clubs receive on the transfer of young players.

DBU has confirmed that a domestic system of compensation for clubs on the transfer of young players, similar to the international rules introduced by FIFA, will not be introduced in Denmark.

Divisionforeningen and Spillerforeningen were due to recommence negotiations in late January, and it seems that there is a good chance of a compromise. If not, a lock-out can starts on 1 June 2004 at the earliest. The previous collective agreement for professional football formally expired on 1 July 2001 and has been under renegotiation ever since. However, as long as it is not suspended or renewed, the old agreement is still in force.

Commentary

The Danish Professional Football Arbitration Court is not part of the normal Danish industrial relations arbitration and conciliation system, but that does not change the fact that this high-profile corner of the Danish labour market is still subject to the normal rules concerning collective bargaining. According to normal legal rules, the notice period for terminating (suspending) a collective agreement is three months and the notice period for taking industrial action is one month. This means that from the time of the Football Arbitration Court's verdict, an employers' lock-out, or a parallel strike by the players’ side, cannot begin before 1 June 2004. The October 2003 letter from Divisionsforeningen terminating the collective agreement and announcing a lock-out with one month’ notice (ie 1 December 2003) was thus unlawful. It also appeared unlawful for the director of Brøndby football club to encourage his players to leave their trade union, so that they could play the scheduled match against Barcelona FC. Players, like other workers, cannot leave their union organisation after a notice of lock-out is given, and furthermore the director appeared to commit a union-hostile act.

This situation has led one industrial relations researcher to call the football conflict a farce, and an own-goal by the Divisionsforeningen clubs' association. He also proposed that the two parties should join a social partner confederation such as the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (Landsforeningen i Danmark, LO) and the Danish Employers’ Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA). In this case they would have professional advisers at their disposal, the players would be covered by a strike fund, and they could all concentrate more on the special rules concerning their sport. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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