The sports labor movement may soon have another entrant, a union for players in the new United States Football League, and potentially for competitors in future minor football leagues like the planned XFL next year.
A petition to represent the approximately 360 USFL players was recently filed at the National Labor Relations Board, and the league has until May 10 to post the petition in the workplace.
spring football is a tough financial proposition, littering the sports landscape with bankruptcies, failed leagues and lawsuits. Bringing in organized labor within the first few weeks of the launch of the USFL could be viewed as a worrying sign, as the organizers have strived to keep costs down so much the league is playing all its games in one city, Birmingham, Ala. Players are paid up to $5,000 per game in most cases.
But in a statement through a spokesman, the USFL, which is owned by Fox Sports, said it welcomed the prospective labor newbie:
“The USFL welcomes and respects the right of our players to organize with any union they elect to represent them. We understand that the federal agency responsible for addressing these issues is currently dealing with potential representation of our players. We intend on fully cooperating with the agency to resolve any questions that exist concerning representation.”
The petition was filed at the NLRB by the United Steelworkers union to represent all USFL players, including those who are suspended, on the injured reserve, or physically unable to perform list, according to a copy of the document, which The Athletic obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial & Service Workers International Union, AFL-CIO was brought in by the United Football Players Association (UFPA), a nonprofit formed two years ago after the collapse of the XFL’s second iteration. The UFPA has been advocating on behalf of non-NFL football players since but without any formal representative status and thin funding. Until this year, its role was largely offering advice on claims in the bankruptcies of the XFL and Alliance of American Football, and tips on playing opportunities in Europe. Now, the USFL is live and the XFL is readying a third try next year.
“We needed some backing when it comes to labor, labor law, and things like that, and being able to unionize,” said Kenneth Farrow, a former NFL and XFL player who is the chairman and co-founder of the UFPA. “So the steelworkers have done some great work in the field of football, you know, with the NCAA and some of the things that they’ve been able to accomplish in the past.”
The United Steelworkers advocated on behalf of NCAA athletes in 2020 in supporting federal legislation pursued by Sen. Cory Booker.
Asked why his organization did not work with the National Football League Players Association, Farrow did not rule it out in the future but indicated the steelworkers union was more willing to move quickly.
“We had conversations with some of the (NFLPA) reps, different chapter reps and things like that,” he said. “And, you know, at the time nobody was kind of making a move on it… The steelworkers were there, they provided an opportunity for a partnership. And, so with the USFL kind of getting up and running as fast as they did, we needed to take action on it. So, that was just the partnership that was there. And that was established. And I don’t think anything’s off the table moving forward.”
The prospective union does not include coaches, team personnel, or all other employees, according to the petition. The United Steelworkers referred questions to Farrow.
Asked what the USFL union would ask for, Farrow replied it was more about negotiating a contract at the bargaining table, rather than each player being handed essentially a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
“It’s just basic things, basic protections when it comes to whether it’s medical, whether it’s, some of the resources … whether it’s living situations, or whatever the case may be, we want to make sure that the players have a voice in whatever contract that they signed,” Farrow said. “Right now, in the last couple of years we signed a contract and there is no bargaining about anything that’s in the contract.”
It’s unclear when a union vote might occur. After the notices of the petition are posted in the USFL workplace in Birmingham, the NLRB has scheduled a May 23 Notice of Representation hearing, which is called to decide if an election should occur. Given the USFL is appearing to cooperate, the hearing may be just a formality.
There have been, and are sports unions for minor leagues. the NBPA represents the G League, and while it was in existence, the Arena Football League bargained with a players’ union. While it is a much larger league now, Major League Soccer has had a union to bargain with since 2003. There is even a union with the United States Rugby Association.
Farrow wants to make clear the players do not want to be an obstacle to the viability of the USFL.
“We’re not trying to come in and shut anything down,” he said. “But we believe that if these leagues are going to continue moving forward, year after year, we need to have a collective voice.”
(Photo: Douglas DeFelice/USFL/Getty Images)