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As the Australian cricketers’ industrial dispute drags on, here’s what we’ve learnt

The Australian cricketers’ refusal to work is a potent form of player power, however the potential benefits may be illusory. AAP/Darren England

As the Australian cricketers’ industrial dispute drags on, here’s what we’ve learnt

The Australian cricketers’ refusal to work is a potent form of player power, however the potential benefits may be illusory. AAP/Darren England

The pay dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers’ Association reflects broader issues of workers seeking to increase their share of the wealth they help create through their labour.

In stalled negotiations, the players’ assertion of their rights to a greater share of revenue can only be tested by their preparedness to strike in support of such claims. Such drastic steps are only contemplated when negotiations reach an impasse, like when employers seek to maintain current revenue-sharing deals, or – as in this case – seek to deal with individual players directly.

The players’ refusal to work is a potent form of player power, but the potential benefits may be illusory. As the dispute drags on, both parties run the risk of alienating consumers (the viewing public), and possibly damaging the sporting brand.

The players’ strike in search of improved salaries across the cricket spectrum and several other demands, also recognises that an inflationary marketplace has emerged in professional sport.

A unique workplace

A feature of contemporary professional sports is that players are becoming increasingly well-organised and militant. In this way, professional sports is bucking major trends in industrial relations, such as a marked decline in both union membership and industrial disputes over recent decades.

Professional athletes now earn salaries far above those of other workers. Yet despite a profitable financial career, these athletes often form player associations to improve their employment conditions.

The need to form associations is due to a series of employment restrictions that limit the earnings of professional athletes at all levels. This is a unique characteristic of professional sport. Governing authorities have power to impose controls that would not be permitted in other workplaces.

Such controls include:

  • fixing employees’ rates of pay;

  • restricting the industry demand for labour;

  • imposing compensation fees on players when moving between employers; and

  • providing clubs with an equitable access to the supply of talent through measures like player drafts.

These restrictions are justified by the need to foster junior development, to maintain public interest in sport by creating “competitive balance” (or even competition), and to ensure the sport’s financial viability.

Differences between the codes

The balance of power in professional sport in Australia has predominately remained with the governing authorities. But players are clearly having a greater influence.

The bargaining power of athletes differs between various Australian team sports. The AFL and NRL offer the greatest opportunities for athletes to demand high salaries. These competitions have 18 and 16 professional clubs respectively, and each wants to attract the best players. Therefore, there are several prospective employers competing for the athletes’ services.

The situation that exists in professional cricket is different. Professional cricketers have access to greatest financial rewards at international level. But at this level, there is only one team for Test cricket and two teams for limited-overs cricket. However, there is also an avenue to cricket riches though the Indian Premier League.

So, Australian cricketers competing for a place to represent their country are employed in a marketplace with only one employer.

There are lucrative rewards for players who reach this pinnacle and are contracted to Cricket Australia. However, domestic players, and women cricketers, are not reaping the same financial benefits.

The current impasse is being spearheaded by those contracted to Cricket Australia. The issue at stake for these players is that the collective agreement process be respected by the employer, and that the interests of all professional cricketers are protected.

Where to from here?

Much of the focus of the dispute revolves around whether there will any disruption to this summer’s Ashes series.

However, the more salient issue in the longer term is that the dispute can be interpreted as a test of power. The outcome is likely to shape future negotiations in cricket and potentially other professional sporting codes.

In most other industries, the strength of organised labour has been aggressively challenged by government regulations that have sought to curb union power, and by assertive employers seeking to bypass unions in support of direct negotiations with employees. Unions now live in a contrary world.

Yet, if there is an intention to sideline player associations in major Australian sporting codes, employers may find there is no such decline in the power of organised labour in sports. Quite the opposite.

Industrial relations, like cricket, is a contest. The employment relationship embeds both co-operation and conflict, in what’s been described as a form of “structured antagonism”.

This concept recognises that both parties have a joint stake in the success of their enterprise, but nevertheless have different interests that need to be resolved through either co-operative employment relations – where employers and workers partner together – or adversarial relations and disputes.

Across different codes, athletes now have a louder voice to assert their interests. And they are expressing a clear preference for a larger share of the pie, and that negotiations occur through collective agreements with their chosen representatives.

Both on and off the field, the stakes are high. And in the industrial relations of sport there are winners and also losers, particularly when the parties fail to work together.