CFL training camps are underway, but with no talks scheduled, a strike still looms

At first glance, it might seem to be a normal June in the CFL. Veterans across the league reported to camps on Sunday, and teams are preparing for the scheduled start of preseason action (Monday, June 9, with Toronto against Winnipeg.) However, there's still a good chance that labour issues could derail that preseason game, the rest of the preseason, and perhaps even regular-season games. The players' decision to report to camps as expected doesn't mean that a deal has been worked out, that one is expected, or that they're willing to play under the terms of the old CBA while negotiating (an idea they unequivocally rejected earlier this year). Instead, it's about a quirk found in provincial labour laws; while seven of the CFL's nine teams have held their strike votes (with over 95 per cent of players reportedly voting to strike), the Alberta teams can't vote until June 7, potentially preventing a league-wide strike before June 10. Thus, the hope provided by camps proceeding as normal so far could well prove to be an illusion.

What's preventing a deal from getting done at the moment? Well, the sides are still $800,000 apart on the cap ceiling for 2014, with the players proposing $5.8 million and the league wanting $5 million. Splitting the difference could be possible, but the CFL said the $5 million ceiling was its last proposal before walking away from the table last week. According to an e-mail the league sent out this weekend, the divide is about more than just the ceiling, too:

FICTION: The CFL offer would set the salary cap at $5 million and the players want it set at $5.8 million, so they could just saw off the difference a little and get a deal.

FACT: The players' union's ask is actually much, much bigger. You see, a lot of player compensation does not fall under the cap. Things like benefits, pensions, pre-season and post-season pay, plus any bonus to be paid for ratifying a new agreement. If you look at everything in our offer and everything in their offer, you find that the CFL is offering to increase player compensation by $850,000 per team in the first year of a deal, and the union is asking us to increase player compensation by $2.4 million per team in the first year of a deal. Their ask is not realistic. Under their proposal, six of nine teams would lose money.

So, the divide between the two sides' proposals could be as much as $1.55 million per team overall, which is yet another indication that a deal is highly unlikely to be reached any time soon. (It's notable that even that $2.4 million figure the league says the players want is still less than the $2.7 million extra each team is expected to receive from the new TV deal, though.) What may signify even more trouble than the numbers is that no further talks are scheduled. The league insists their recent offer is their last one, and they've called for a player vote on that (which would go over the head of the CFLPA negotiating committee in an attempt to break the union); not surprisingly, the players have rejected that idea, saying that would also void the insurance they're currently at camp under:

CFL commissioner Mark Cohon would like the players to vote on the league’s latest proposal, which, he maintained, was the best and final offer. Scott Flory, the union president, told The Gazette last week that won’t occur.

According to Bourke, the CBA would expire if the players voted and rejected the proposal. Bourke said players no longer would be protected by insurance under that scenario.

“I’ve looked at the proposal and seen the emails. It’s all smoke and mirrors,” Bourke charged. “Putting it to a vote is more of a tactic on their part.”

Conversely, B.C. Lions' player rep Paul McCallum has matched the league tactics, calling for an owners' vote on the players' proposal in a response to the league's demands:

Michael Copeland, chief executive officer for the league and a member of the Player Relations Council that negotiates for the PA, urged players to vote on the CFL’s latest offer.

That prompted a retort from McCallum.

“Why don’t we put our offer to a vote of the owners?” said the Lions’ rep, who would not disclose the result of his team’s strike vote, which was calculated earlier this week. “If they’re wanting to wait and see our vote strength, so be it.”

Both of those calls for a vote are basically just posturing at the moment, as both the players' and owners' negotiating committees appear to have the support of a substantial majority of the rest of the membership. (If players were so disillusioned with their leadership, the strike vote wouldn't have gone as well as it reportedly has, while the ownership committee is very much serving at the behest of the league's teams.) Still, they indicate just how far apart these sides are, and the sniping at each other suggests diplomatic talks are unlikely to resume for the moment.

It's unfortunate that the sides appear to be at an impasse, as substantial progress was made in the recent weeks' negotiations. The key philosophical divide over a cap system has been broken, with the players conceding the league's demand for a flat cap rather than a percentage of revenue. In terms of the cap ceiling, the players have moved down by $440,000 from the offer they released May 21, while the owners have boosted their proposal by $200,000 from May 21 (by $600,000 from the 2013 CBA). Don't expect further progress for the moment, though, as no talks are currently scheduled. We'll see if and when the players strike, and we'll see if the onrushing season prompts the sides to head back to the table, but unless something happens soon, at least missed preseason games (and potentially missed regular-season games) appear more and more likely all the time.