Footballers go on strike

Danish professional football players launched their first ever strike on 17 August 2004. This followed the breakdown of negotiations over the renewal of the collective agreement between the players' union, SPF, and the clubs' association, DF, despite the efforts of the Public Conciliation Service. The central point in the dispute is the interpretation of a FIFA rule which gives clubs the right to demand compensation for training and developing young players if these players are transferred to foreign clubs after the expiry of their contracts.

Professional football players started a strike on 17 August 2004. At the end of July, negotiations between the players union the Danish Football Players' Association (Spillerforeningen, SPF) and the clubs represented by the Danish League Association (Divisionsforeningen, DF) had broken down at the Public Conciliation Service (Forligsinstitutionen) and the parties failed to conclude an agreement. This was the first time ever that a football dispute had been taken up by the Public Conciliation Service, which after the breakdown of talks decided to postpone industrial action by the parties for two weeks. The two weeks passed without any breakthrough in negotiations and the first strike in Danish football broke out on 17 August.

SPF and DF concluded a collective agreement and a 'basic agreement' in March 1999 (DK0107126N). The agreement was not renewed in 2001, as scheduled, which means that it is still in force. The current negotiating process is part of an attempt to renew the collective agreement.

Basis of conflict

A central point in the conflict is 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. In August 2003 the Danish Football Association (Dansk Boldspil Union, DBU) implemented the FIFA rule in the players’ standard contract, inserting a provision that a football club, in connection with transfer of a player under 23 to a foreign club, can demand compensation as 'back payment for talent development'. DF agreed with this new rule while SPF declared that it was in breach of the collective agreement in force and in contravention of the European Court of Justice's 1995 ruling in the Bosman case (Case C-415/93) - which found that players were entitled to a free transfer at the end of their contract with a club, in application of the EU Treaty principle of free movement of labour. DBU did not withdraw the new contracts and consequently SPF has brought a case in the High Court (Landsretten), which may be referred to the European Court of Justice.

DF claims that professional football is more international than national and that FIFA rules must be followed if international football cooperation is to make any sense. In the current dispute, FIFA’s rules should be viewed as having greater weight than a national collective agreement. According to DF, FIFA has confirmed that international transfer rules can not be overturned by collective agreements in particular countries. SPF, on the other hand, states that on various occasions FIFA has been overruled by the football associations in Spain, France and the UK, and, most importantly, that in Denmark it is the collective agreement that regulates conditions on the labour market, and not an international organisation. FIFA has no jurisdiction to overturn Danish collective agreements, according to SPF.

Lock-out of players overruled

At the same time as the SPF union took DBU to court, the DF clubs' association announced a suspension of the collective agreement and a lock-out of players from 1 December 2003. However, DF had overlooked the fact that the notice period for suspending an agreement is three months, and the letter of notice of suspension was not sent until 30 October (DK0401104F). The lock-out was thus declared unlawful by the Danish Professional Football Arbitration Court (Dansk Fodbolds Voldgiftsret). In footballing parlance, the first half appeared to end one-nil to the players' association.

Players' union joins LO

Had DF been able to suspend the collective agreement and instigate a lock-out, as it had planned, the players would not have received wages from 1 December 2003, nor could they have met at work from that date. Since the league has a winter break and there would be no further matches until the following March, an industrial conflict of this type would have been without costs for the clubs while the players would have had much more at stake. The players did not have a union strike fund or other economic measures to support them during a industrial dispute. Seeing this as a clear warning, SPF took the offensive. In June 2004 it joined the country's largest trade union confederation, the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO), which completely changed the players' potential in a conflict (DK0407102N). Through membership of LO they now have access to considerable strike funds and professional advice in the field of labour market rules and collective agreements.

Subsequently, SPF announced a strike from 1 August 2004.

Negotiations end in deadlock

Negotiations involving the Public Conciliation Service at the beginning of August ended in deadlock. The conflict was postponed for two weeks, but began on 17 August as the parties had not moved any closer to a solution. Two proposed initiatives did not result in a compromise. First, the idea was raised of amending the collective agreement to accommodate important decisions taken at international level while the agreement is in force. Second, SPF offered a compromise concerning the disputed rule on transfers of players aged up to 23. It proposed that if players were to receive a wage corresponding to their market value after the age of 19, the clubs could claim compensation for talent development in the event of a transfer to a foreign club. At present, players are often transferred between the ages of 20 and 23, and under the new rule their clubs can claim substantial compensation from a foreign club. However, during this period the players are generally still paid the wages they received when aged 17-19, ie around DKK 9,000 (EUR 1,200) a month. This is completely unbalanced, SPF claims, since the transfer sum has a restrictive influence on the possibility of a player receiving a good wage when sold to a foreign club. The main reason for the deadlock in the talks, however, was the question of the validity of the collective agreement. SPF maintains that it is unlawful to implement new aspects in a collective agreement in force, and therefore the new transfer rule is not valid. DF claims that decisions of both DBU and FIFA overrule the collective agreement.

After the beginning of the strike, the executive board of LO issued a press release supporting SPF and stated that the dispute is a matter of resolving a conflict by the rules of the Danish labour market, and nothing else.

The strike affects the new league season and if it continues Danish clubs will not be able to play matches in the European Champions League and UEFA Cup. The strike does not affect Danish players at foreign clubs, which means that the national football team will be only slightly affected. The other unions affiliated to LO have called sympathy action, which means that work at and around football stadiums will stop as long as the conflict continues.

Commentary

Many football supporters have expressed frustration about the strike, taking the view that football and industrial relations, much less industrial conflict, do not belong to the same sphere. They share this position with the clubs in the national league and their association, DF, and the national football governing body, DBU, although perhaps for rather different reasons.

Essentially, it seems that DF wants to suspend the collective agreement and leave all aspects of employment conditions to individual negotiations, with DBU having the final word. Since this is impossible without SPF taking legal industrial action, and also due to the fact that the players are protected by the right to freedom of association, DF demands that transfer rules be left out of the collective agreement and left to DBU to negotiate. It should be mentioned that DF has five representatives on the board of DBU, while SPF is represented only on its contracts committee.

Another matter at issue is the interpretation of the FIFA rule on compensation for transfers of young players, which results from a compromise reached by the European Commission and FIFA in 2001 following the Bosman ruling. DF and DBU claim that this rule is the legal basis for the paragraph they have inserted in players' contracts. However, a compromise between the Commission and FIFA does not overrule the provisions of the EU Treaty and cannot be implemented in the Member States as 'EU law'. Furthermore, a collective agreement in force cannot be changed until it is renegotiated, despite DF's wishes. The only possibility to have the new rule implemented is to reach a compromise in a renewed collective agreement.

Now that SPF has joined a trade union confederation for advice and support, it would be an idea for the clubs to join an employers’ confederation, presumably the Danish Employers’ Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA), and thus leave it to DA and LO to deal with essential labour market issues while the clubs and players concentrate on football. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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