After player unrest threatened to disrupt the start of CFL training camps last week, labour peace was finally at hand Wednesday as the league’s board of governors and the union representing its players ratified a new collective bargaining agreement.
A new three-year deal will take the league through the 2021 season. On Saturday, the CFL Players’ Association accused the CFL of reneging on some of the terms in a tentative deal reached last week. Further negotiations averted a walkout and a revised document was presented to the players.
"That’s bargaining," Winnipeg Blue Bombers player rep Chad Rempel told the Free Press. "There were a few misunderstandings, but we were able to work through it. Bargaining can feel uncompromising at times, and contentious, but that’s all part of the process."
Rempel was unwilling to go into detail over what sparked the uproar.
"I can’t really share for confidentiality reasons," Rempel said. "That was part of the bargaining process, so I can’t share that information. We were able to get through it and I think everyone is happy right now and excited to play football."
Rempel credited CFLPA president Jeff Keeping, executive director Brian Ramsay and lead negotiator Kevin Georgetti for shepherding the new contract to the finish line.
The Blue Bombers, meanwhile, completed the fourth day of training camp at IGF.
"We’re in the middle of camp, so I haven’t paid very close attention to that," Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. "I’m happy it’s ratified. I think both sides put a lot of effort in and spent a lot of time and went through the night trying to get a deal done, and I applaud both sides for that — it’s awesome. We depended on an agreement being done in good time and I’m thankful that they got it done."
Players voted 74 per cent in favour of the new pact.
"In any business, the older you get, the more you’re around it, you can’t take things personally," veteran Winnipeg quarterback Matt Nichols said. "Each side is trying to do the best for their side. I fully understand there is a business side to this game and you have to take some emotion out of some things. In my mind, we’re partners with the league and trying to build this game and bring in more revenue so both sides can make more money. All that stuff now is done, over with, out of your control anyway. Deal with the rules, just like in anything, and move on and play football."
Many of the improvements gained by the players were on the economic side. Clubs can no longer withhold bonuses, the league’s minimum salary will be raised to $65,000 (from $53,000) starting in 2020 and there will be a modest up-tick in the salary cap, at $50,000 per team in each year of the deal. In addition, the rookie salary scale will start at $85,000 for the first overall pick.
The players will also get 20 per cent of CFL 2.0 broadcast revenues and 20 per cent of any increase in the TSN deal. The current TSN contract expires following the 2021 season.
"There were major steps in improving the long-term health care for injuries and becoming more partners with the league, with some of the revenue sharing that’s going on," Nichols said. "I don’t understand fully all the details. I just know that as presented to us, both sides kinda have a vested interest in growing the game, and so I think that’s important. It’s not sides that are always competing with each other, I guess. Forming a partnership, which was big for us."
Earlier suggestions that the league wanted to reduce the number of Canadian starters from the current seven were shelved. In addition, Canadian starting quarterbacks, previously excluded from this ratio, will now be included. Another key component of the new agreement stipulates that when it comes to American starters, three must have played three years with their existing teams or four years in the CFL.
Medical and rehabilitation coverage for players increased to 24 months in 2019 and will be upped to 36 months beginning in 2020.
"I think that’s enormous," Winnipeg safety/special-teamer Jeff Hecht said. "Canadians have provincial health care because of our health-care system, but it benefits Americans enormously. Guys transplanted their lives, coming up here to help grow our league to present to Canadian fans. And it gives them a little more security to know that if something catastrophic were to happen, they’re putting their necks on the line and they’re protected a lot more than they were in the past."
CFL teams will work with the union to provide open work permits for non-Canadians, allowing them to seek year-round employment in Canada. Clubs will pay these costs.
"It’s one of those things that I didn’t really think about until it was actually explained in the meeting," said Blue Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson, an American in his sixth season in the CFL. "But I feel that opening up work permits to players and their families is gonna be big, because a lot of players do tend to come up here with their families and like the change and the atmosphere they get and want to stay year round."
— with files from Jeff Hamilton
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.