Labour board filing pits upstart union against junior hockey league over player wages.
The Ontario Hockey League illegally undermined a union drive of its players between 2012 and 2014 using “malicious, high-handed conduct,” a prospective union has alleged in a filing before the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association attempted to unionize major junior players in the Ontario Hockey League with a promise of establishing minimum wage payment for work weeks that often exceed full-time hours. That effort was met with aggressive “disregard for the Canadian judicial system” by league officials who attempted to avoid an employer/employee relationship with players and “circumvent labour laws, employment standards act and previous court rulings,” reads the application, obtained by the Star. In an email statement Monday, OHL commissioner David Branch said there are “deficiencies with the application not the least of which is that the allegations made are completely unfounded and untimely. We will vigorously defend ourselves against this frivolous complaint.” In the past, he has told the Star that the relationship between clubs and their players does not amount to employment because the players are considered “amateur athletes.” Union officials counter that provincial labour laws should apply to for-profit hockey clubs generating income from the work of their players. While OHL players have traditionally been paid stipends — typically less than $500 a month — and received benefits such as lodging, food and hockey gear, they have never been paid in accordance with minimum wage legislation. The dispute is already at the centre of a $180-million class-action suit filed in 2014 — currently before the courts — alleging the OHL is breaking minimum wage laws. At the heart of the CHLPA’s labour board grievance is a 2014 memo from the OHL to its member clubs warning them to stop using any language that would imply an employment relationship, to stop paying salaries to players and stop issuing tax slips, Workers Compensation Board contributions and employment records. That memo, titled “Update to Administrative Policies,” advises clubs that they “do not need to notify (Canada Revenue Agency) that they are no longer withholding and remitting deductions with respect to players.” The memo instructed teams to disregard a Canada Revenue Agency Federal Court ruling that classified the OHL players as employees, the CHLPA application reads. “This under-handed scheme . . . was meant to try and systemically and maliciously penalize the players from being eligible for minimum wage,” it alleges. CHLPA spokesperson Randy Gumbley said the league memo resulted in “severe damage” to the prospective union’s certification drive and to its reputation with players. “The fear of repercussions is very big among OHL players,” he said. “That has to stop. Players have a right to unionize without the fear of reprisal.” Exhibits included with the application also show how standard league player contracts changed language detailing the relationship between players and their clubs. A 2013 player contract includes the clause, “20-year-old players are considered to be employees and are treated as such” — language that does not appear in subsequent copies of player contracts obtained by the CHLPA and the Star. The labour board application seeks the “automatic certification of the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association (CHLPA) as the recognized bargaining agent for all players in the Ontario Hockey League,” or damages of $175,000 for union drive expenses. “The board must see fit to not only take appropriate legal action, but in this specific case, set a legal precedent to ensure that the unlawful, malicious, high-handed conduct by the respondents doesn’t take place again,” it reads. In March, the CHLPA became a member of The World Association of IceHockey Players’ Unions, a global organization with members across Europe and North America. Gumbley said his union will launch a new recruitment drive at the end of July in partnership with a larger, more established union in Canada. “We’re hoping the labour board will see the injustice that has happened and set a precedent ruling and sanction the OHL so that these actions won’t happen again.”