Canada's largest union takes up fight to unionize CHL players

Unifor and president Jerry Dias are taking up the fight to unionize players in the Canadian Hockey League. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan
Unifor and president Jerry Dias are taking up the fight to unionize players in the Canadian Hockey League. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan

It was two summers ago that the initial idea of unionizing players in the Canadian Hockey League was first discussed. The project was mishandled from the start by a group with unclear motives and certification of the roughly 1,400 players never got off the ground.

Jerry Dias is here to change that.

As president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, Dias is taking up the fight to create a union for CHLers.

“The facts are we are a reputable Canadian union and we’re determined,” said Dias in an interview with Yahoo Sports on Monday. “We’re not going to allow the high-priced lawyers that are employed by the league to push us around.”

But it's off to a rocky start.

The Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association (CHLPA) was the group that first tried to unionize players in 2012. The idea of a potential union was sound, but the group running it was not. The CHLPA was plagued by miscues and a number of their statements via social media were puzzling. They refused to name anyone behind the scenes involved with their board, until the CHLPA hired former NHLer Georges Laraque as their executive director.

Laraque spent roughly three months with the group before resigning amid controversy. The CHL had hired a private investigator to look into the CHLPA. There were stories of people using multiple identities within the organization. Later it was revealed that the driving force behind the union was a man named Glenn Gumbley, whose brother Randy had been twice convicted for trying to defraud junior hockey players. The CHLPA denied Randy Gumbley was involved, but their venture was beyond salvage.

Dias told Yahoo Sports that Glenn Gumbley met with Unifor at the start of the process, but was not involved with the unionization attempt. However in a Toronto Star report on Monday, Gumbley is alledged to have helped Unifor in their recruitment of players for their certification effort. The paper reported that Gumbley was given a promise of a $60,000 payment if he was able to get certification votes for Quebec Major Junior Hockey League teams.

Dias had originally told the Star that he had never met Gumbley but later recanted.

“I was not up front and honest when we talked last, I was evasive,” Dias told the paper. “Can we start fresh? I’m the head of the organization and I’ll take the crap. That’s the way it has to be.”

Unifor represents some 300,000 workers including the old Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) along with a number of media and manufacturing unions. Dias says Unifor wants to help junior hockey players because he believes it’s a part of a larger problem which sees young people exploited in the work force.

The biggest question at hand, however, is whether players in the 60-team CHL are actually employees or if they are amateur athletes. Back in 2012, Eric Tucker, a labour law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto told Yahoo Sports that question would be at the core of any argument before a labour board.

“The most fundamental question is whether these players are employees or amateur athletes who receive some kind of stipend,” wrote Tucker in an email. “If they are not employees, then unionization under labour law is not an option.”

At present, Unifor is in the early stages of the certification process for players. That process differs by province, but in Ontario the new union would have to apply to the Ontario Labour Relations Board with 40 percent of the players signed up.

“It’s really up to the players,” said Dias. “This ought not to be determined by Bay Street lawyers. This should be determined by the wishes and the wants of the players.”

Dias said he has yet to speak with CHL president and OHL commissioner David Branch, but hopes to soon. Among the biggest issues for the new group are better access to CHL scholarships, improved health care and an avenue to deal with mental health issues.

He cites the example of Kootenay Ice forward Tim Bozon, an import player who contracted meningitis while playing in the WHL. The native of France spent a month in hospital and was left with a huge medical bill because he wasn’t fully covered by the league’s insurance policy. There was also the case of Saginaw Spirit forward Terry Trafford, who took his own life in March after being sent home and subsequently cut from the team.

“This is about having a good discussion about what constitutes fair compensation,” said Dias. “What is legitimately fair? Should they not have better insurance? Should they not have full access to their scholarships? Should they not have – in the case of a Tim Bozon – a much better safety net? Should we not have something in place to deal with the tragedy of a Terry Trafford?

“There has to be a better way of doing things.”

In the meantime, the CHL has been busy. The Ontario Hockey League recently boosted their player education and benefits packages for the first time in decades. Instead of a weekly stipend ranging from $50 to $150 per week, the league now has a reimbursement plan where players are able to claim expenses for up to $470 per month ($900 for overage players). The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League decided to cut their pay for overage players from $550 a week to $150. As in the past, teams still cover player housing via billets, equipment, travel and insurance.

There are those who believe both changes were made in order to thwart a union drive and so a non-employee status could be argued more favourably in front of a labour board.

“There’s no question they are employees,” said Dias. “There’s no question (the CHL are) maneuvering and they’ve been doing this for years. They’ll do everything they can to maintain the status quo because the status quo has worked very well for them for years.”

And while there are a number big-market teams in the CHL who are posting profits, there are still many – including the small community-owned franchises – who would be impacted greatly in the event a union came to fruition. For Dias, however, the issue isn’t about player payment, but rather making sure players are taken care in terms of post-secondary education and improved health services.

“I don’t think teams are going to fold as a result of this,” said Dias, who was unware of the new changes to the OHL benefits. “This isn’t really about breaking anybody’s bank.”

Recently the NCAA has been embroiled in the same issue with Northwestern University as their football team has taken great strides to for a union. In that case, the football players were found to be employees by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board and not student-employees as the school had argued. There are appeals ongoing in that case as there will be for the CHL and union regardless of which side comes out on top.

Knowing the fight ahead, Dias says Unifor is in this for the long haul if that’s what the players want.

“We’re going to face incredible obstacles,” said Dias. “I know they will throw up every roadblock. We’re dealing with some people that have a lot of money – there’s a lot of people that want to keep the system exactly the way it is because they’re benefitting very well from the system. I’m under no illusion that somehow the owners are going roll over – just the opposite. That’s why we’re here because we’re not going to be scared off by the roadblocks and the obstacles.

“We’re going to continue and plow ahead.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: | Twitter @Sunayas