CFLPA feels “ambushed” by CFL’s “orchestrated attack,” moves forward with strike plans

Wednesday started as another typical day in the contested CFL-CFLPA collective bargaining discussions, but it soon turned into anything but, with the league taking the unprecedented step of publicly releasing letters from commissioner Mark Cohon outlining the league's positions and saying the union's proposal "would threaten the very existence of the CFL." The CFLPA then responded with an impromptu press conference at the Toronto hotel where they were negotiating with the league, and later publicly released their own CBA proposal and letter to fans. Perhaps the most notable impact of Wednesday's escalations is how the CFL one was planned and the CFLPA's was a quick response, though. CFLPA president Scott Flory said the league's decision to release its bargaining position (as well as reveal elements of the union's proposal) and post a letter to fans making the CFL's case happened minutes after the CBA talks ended Wednesday morning, adding that he thought it had been planned long in advance:

"From our perspective, this is an orchestrated attack," Flory said. "We feel a bit ambushed."

CFLPA lawyer Ed Molstad said this morning's meeting involved next-to-no discussion, only the league completely shooting down the players' latest proposal.

"The meeting was scheduled for 10, it started a bit before 10:15, 10:20," Molstad said. "They advised us this proposal is totally unacceptable. They rejected it entirely. They advised us they were not prepared to discuss tying [the cap] to revenues."

Molstad said the league must have been planning for no progress in the morning talks.

"To see a press release moments later that obviously was prepared before the meeting began, that suggests that," he said.

While negotiating publicly is a highly unusual step by the CFL, and one that clearly took the players off guard, it isn't necessarily bad in its own right. Putting the actual information of what each side is proposing out there has its merits, especially as it makes it much more clear what this dispute is about, and it allows the fans (who are providing the revenue that's being argued about here) to consider each side's positions and form their own opinions. That has notable benefits over keeping things entirely behind closed doors (the theoretical previous position) or allowing negotiations to play out through dribs-and-drabs leaks to selected media outlets (what actually was going on). The league's decision to secretly and suddenly turn this into a public negotiation has its ups and downs, though. The CFL had the element of surprise here and used it to put their side of the story out faster and in a more organized and comprehensive fashion, forcing the union to play catch-up. That may be useful in the battle for the hearts and minds of the public. However, it may hurt the league in actual negotiations with the CFLPA. Plenty of players are incensed about how this played out, especially with the league writing a public letter to all players with its position, which can be viewed as trying to sow dissension within the ranks against the union bargaining committee. It's quite possible that this could help galvanize on-the-fence players towards a strike.

As per a strike, that's the next logical step here. (It's likely to be a strike rather than the lockouts we've recently seen in the NFL, NHL and NBA, because in this case, the league would be quite happy to play under the previous CBA. That would mean they wouldn't have to share any of their new TV revenue. In fact, even the league's own proposal is significantly improved over the previous CBA, so the status quo is extraordinarily tilted towards the CFL. Thus, it has to be the union upsetting it. In those other cases, the leagues were looking to roll back player percentages, leading to lockouts.) The CFLPA's negotiating committee was already recommending a strike vote last week, and the ballots have already been sent out in most cases.

"Strike vote ballots were sent out to seven teams last Friday," Molstad said.

The exceptions are Edmonton and Calgary, as Alberta labour law prevents strike votes before a CBA officially expires unless both sides agree to waive that, and Molstad said the CFL refused. The CBA expires May 29, so the CFLPA can't do much in Alberta until then. However, they're planning to do the vote nationwide as soon as possible.

"We'll have that vote on or about May 30," Molstad said.

Flory said the union isn't trying to shut down the league, but the way the negotiations have gone have left them little choice.

"We're not trying to disrupt the league," he said. "It's unfortunate it's come to this."

CFLPA first vice-president Marwan Hage said the players were disappointed by what happened Wednesday, as they'd prefer to play.

"We negotiated in good faith, we're always hoping to talk, we're always trying to move forward," he said. "Our position is not to close the door. Our position is to play football this year."

That's not going to happen without something changing significantly, though. Teams will open rookie training camps as normal May 28 regardless of a strike vote, as rookies aren't yet covered by the CBA. However, if that strike vote succeeds, veteran camps (set to start June 1) could be affected, and if it persists, pre-season and regular-season games may be lost (the latter of which is extremely problematic for the league). While the most dramatic effects of missed games may be on the league, any substantial work stoppage would be significant for the players too, as they won't be getting paid. That's likely why we're seeing plenty of urgency here on both sides.

At this point, though, there are only three scenarios where the CFL's veteran camps can proceed as scheduled. The first is that the strike vote fails. That's a possibility; many CFL players, especially imports with NFL dreams, aren't planning to be in this league for the long term, and the substantial year-one salary boost the league is proposing may be enough to get them to overlook the limited growth in later years. Some players may be in tough financial straits and eager to receive a paycheque, too. However, the players' union has shown a tendency to be hard-line lately, and their election of Flory in March (and his subsequent statement that the CFLPA won't play under the old CBA) suggested they were willing to fight for what they see as their fair share, even if that means missed action. Unless a lot of players have changed their minds, it seems unlikely the strike vote will fail.

The second scenario is that the players' negotiating committee changes their stance and accepts a flat cap. That seems unlikely, considering how strongly they've said they're committed to a revenue-sharing system (which the CFL has currently deemed non-negotiable). If that did happen, though, the rest would be merely haggling about numbers, and that might be enough progress to call off the strike and go to camps while the details are being hammered out.

The third potential scenario is the league changing its stance and creating a cap that's a proportion of revenue, the way the players want. That seems highly unlikely too, as the CFL's staked out a strong stance against that; Molstad said Wednesday "They refused to discuss any proposal that has the cap tied to revenue." However, that's the only condition the CFLPA said they'd go back to work under while a final CBA is being hammered out.

"[If] we see a communication that the clubs are willing to tie it in some way to revenue, then we would consider it," Molstad said. "At this point, we certainly don't have any indication from the CFL that they're willing to pursue that."

The CFL went for the nuclear option Wednesday with their decision to take this battle to the public, and the CFLPA has followed suit with the release of their own proposal. Both sides appear quite willing to dig in to their positions at this point, and neither appears willing to consider the other side's preferred system. Unless either the league or the union change their proposals dramatically, we may well wind up with a labour stoppage.