All to play for with sectoral agreement in football

In June 1998, football players in Austria started negotiating a collective agreement with clubs. This puts them at the forefront of industrial relations in sport, though there are some difficult issues to be resolved. Much of the inspiration comes from the Dutch model.

Some 780 professional football players are members of the Football Section (Fachgruppe Fußball, FG Fußball) of the Arts, Media and Free Professions Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Kunst, Medien, freie Berufe, KMfB). This is about 95% of all professional players in the country, according to FG Fußball. On 10 June 1998, the day the World Cup started, the first substantive discussions opened between FG Fußball and the Federal Football League (Bundesliga), the association of football clubs, over a collective agreement. There are only about 30 players who are paid enough by their clubs and by sponsors to be counted among top earners. The majority of the 350 full-time professionals, according to the trade union, earn about as a much as a bank employee of the same age.

Objectives and contents

The trade union is aiming at a minimum gross salary of ATS 210,000 per year, to which the clubs seem willing to agree. It will apply universally to all professional players, regardless of the league they play in.

A major demand is for continued payment of the salary when the player is sick or injured, as may easily be the case in an accident-prone industry like football. This is essentially covered by existing law but FG Fußball wants to make sure that players earns as much as they would have done had they been healthy at the time of a game. This is obviously a tricky issue since it is an entirely theoretical question as to whether a particular player would have played, even if healthy. A solution to this problem is still pending but it will probably be modelled on some existing club arrangement perceived to be just.

The envisaged collective agreement is based on the agreement that has been in existence in the Netherlands for decades. This is particularly true of the pension fund idea. Given that a professional career usually ends at about the age of 35, the trade union wants to place an obligation on players - not on clubs - to pay into a pension fund. This would reduce net income during the player's active period by between 10% and 30% or, as in the Netherlands, by up to 40% depending on salary. Upon ending the career, 40% of the saved-up capital would be paid to the player over a period of 24 months. The balance plus the interest would be paid in equal amounts over a period of 96 months (eight years). These payments would be independent of and in addition to what the former players earn in their regular occupation. In the Dutch case, a supplementary old-age pension is also included. Whether this will be a feature of the Austrian agreement has not yet been decided. There is no redistribution between players in this system. All players would also be able to secure a loan while still active with their pension fund contributions.

The rights and obligations of player and employer are also to be specified in the collective agreement. This is generally seen as perhaps the most important point. There are two main rights on the agenda: the right to market the player and the players' right to exercise their profession. The first of the two is concerned with the extent to which the club has the right to sign marketing and merchandising contracts with third parties without consulting the players themselves. The second deals with the danger of being sidelined by the coach or by management - that is, to be excluded from training, even with full pay. The rights of the club will certainly include disciplinary measures, but the collective agreement will attempt to oblige clubs to keep them transparent and coherent.

The social partners are agreed on a substantial degree of working time flexibility. Holiday entitlements, in particular, pose a legal problem. It is not clear at this time what kind of solution will be found. Football players are much more easily likened to actors, for whom special legislation is on the books exempting them from the normal regulation of working time but still protecting them from arbitrary assignments. A similar exemption could be included in a Sports Act were it ever to be introduced. In the short run, the collective agreement will need to find ingenious ways of remaining within the law without disturbing the footballing way of life.

At present, there are no works councils at any of the clubs. The collective agreement may also include a clause to circumvent one of the clubs' major worries on this point. Works council members cannot be fired except after specific forms of misconduct. Since players practically always have fixed-term contracts, some agreement will have to be found so that their employment terminates even if their four-year term on the works council is not yet up.

History

The Football Section was founded 10 years ago at the initiative of its current chair, together with prominent players of the day. When it started, it organised about three-quarters of the professional players. During its first decade, legal counselling was its main job because young players frequently sign contracts whose implications they do not fully comprehend.

FG Fußball, through its Association of Football Players (Verein der Fußballer, VdF), initiated measures of social protection for football players who ended up in poverty after an injury. To this end they created the Youth and Social Protection Fund which is also meant to support young players.

The Section several years ago started to spread the idea of a collective agreement. While football players welcomed the idea, one problem was that a counterpart on the clubs' side did not exist. There was the Bundesliga, but it did not have the right to conclude collective agreements. This had to be applied for and it took a long time to gain. There is currently no time pressure to conclude the agreement because the clubs will not have their general assembly until February 1999.

A book on selected labour law issues concerning professional football players in Austria has also been published ("Ausgewählte arbeitsrechtliche Probleme beim Berufsfußballer in Österreich", Franz Thaurer).

Commentary

The main beneficiaries of the planned agreement are not the established players but the new professionals entering the game. In some respects, it is aimed particularly at players who have to return to a substantially lower income level after the end of their part-time or full-time professional career. The pension fund is essentially about smoothing the changeover.

Given the high visibility of the sport, the collective agreement, future legislation, and even the existence of the trade union itself are all sensitive subjects. It will be interesting, in particular, to see how the legal issues surrounding the regulation of holidays and working time will be solved. However, as the chair of the Football Section said in an interview with the ÖGB's monthly journal, working time will remain as it is: the game will still last 90 minutes.

In the longer run, football may not remain the only sport with a trade union and a collective agreement. The chair of the FG likes to quote Austria's currently most prominent skier that skiers should have a similar representation. In fact, on 18 June 1998, the KMfB added "Sports" to its name. Furthermore, thinking on a Sports Act has already begun; it would probably find some of its inspiration from the 1922 Actors' Act, as amended, especially with respect to the regulation of working time and holidays. (August Gächter, IHS)

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