Interview: No Ifs, No Butts
Unions: National Focus
Industrial: Fools Gold
Bad Boss: Bones of Contention
History: The Gong Show
Politics: The Hawke Legacy
International: Sick Nation
Economics: Closed Minds
Review: Mixing Pop and Politics
Poetry: One Size Fits All
The Locker Room
The Monk Off Our Back
No Ifs, No Butts
Interview with Peter Lewis
Tony, how has a noted front row footballer ended up in charge of a union
I have been a member of the players body since I started with Penrith in 1984. In the mid-ninties I was appointed Vice President of the Kevin Ryan led Rugby League Association and when that folded became involved in the NRLPA (News/ARL) in "99 and 2000. I have always taken an active interest in issues relating to the playing and business of the game.
My early experiences with the Knights as a new club made me begin to think more critically about the constantly evolving industry I was part of. My experiences and observations over 20 years, drawn over 17 seasons as a player, 2 years as a board member of the club, and nearly 4 years as President of the RLPA, have provided me with insights and knowledge that equip me for my current role.
The Super League war, and what occurred at administration and player levels as a result of that period, ushered in a whole new period for the game that didnt come with a blueprint. Professionalism, media scrutiny, money, contracts and Agents brought pressures and problems that the infrastructure within the game, its administration and indeed its players had never had to deal with before.
I was fortunate that I had good management and advice from former golfer turned personal advisor,Jack Newton. Most of the players I knew didn't and were being exploited in some cases. In any event the contracts and rules governing a players participation meant an agent could do little and a player less when a club went broke; an injury brought about your contract termination; or the salary cap bites and ends, we say unfairly in many cases, a players time in a club or the game.
Anyway, in 2000 we had formed ourselves into a new body. There was a coming together in 1998 of the Super League group and the MEAA group - Peter Allen and Peter Moscatt shared the role. They formed an Executive with myself and Nathan Brown, Jim Dymock, Martin Locke and Steve Georgealous., and after a year there was no progress so the players agreed that we needed to go our own way. So we extricated ourselves from the NRLPA.
I was retiring in 2000 and a couple of the Executive were going to England, and Nathan Brown had a crook neck and they asked me to take over. And I said well, I'm finishing uni next year, I've managed to save a few bucks from footy, it would be good experience, and it should only take a year. This can't be too difficult. So on the encouragement from senior players at the time I took the job on with the stated objective to "get the Association and a CBA up and running" . I had other options of course in Newcastle, as one does, but I thought that this was probably more pressing, certainly close to my heart and something I was probably uniquly positioned to make a reality.
In your uni degree, you started looking at the way players were being treated in the NRL and what was going on in the other sports. Did that became a bit of a blueprint for what you have done since?
The degree course I did was marketing and business management with a bit of IR thrown in, a bit of contract and marketing law and some media courses. A lot of case studies dealt with human resource management and the emerging field of sports marketing. Being part of a club at Newcastle that relied heavily on its public connections and equity I took a close interest in understanding how the professional sports as they now were had to market themselves; how they had to control their (broadcast) rights; had to control and leverage sponsorship; and basically contractually how sports administrators needed to tie everything tightly together.
I and Jack Newton had some major issues with clauses within the standard form contract that was imposed following the after the Super League carry on. Players and their agents weren't overly concerned at the time with the documents that tied the players to the game, they were getting their cut, players were getting paid, and those who weren't were unable to advance any argument because there was no cohesive Association that could advance their concerns regarding the inequities. Those inequities still exist and have been added to overtime. To the point now were the current players body faces a massive challenge in bringing about some balance.
The collective agreement has been a goal of players for a long time, but what you keep saying is that it has just been impossible to get these people to the negotiating table. Talk us through the process of getting to the stage we are at is now.
Getting the NRL and clubs to the table has not been an issue. What our concern was that following possibly 100 meetings at different levels over three years, we have not been able to lock down an agreement that is comparable to the other major sports in this country or overseas. We have though reached in principle agreement on a number of issues in recent times and that is encouraging.
By way of context, I took on this role in late 2000. I had been retired for a week when the New Zealand team went broke. They went broke after being unable to pay players and staff for a number of months before the company went into liquidation. We contented that the NRL, who had declared the franchise a going concern only months before, should have ensured the players and staff were kept abreast of the situation as their role was to oversee the viability of the clubs and vicariously the best interests of the players. The NRLs response at the time was that "they have no legal or moral obligation to the players. This comment by then CEO David Moffat was the turning point for me as I realised the players were seen simply as a resource. This was big business and the human element that must exist in a game of this nature had been consigned to the back of the room.
In the wash-up we managed to get the players about $200,000 (NZ), divvied up amongst the guys while losing all up about $1.3 million. As well as contracts being torn up, players were cut, families had to sell assets to cover lost wages and many needed to relocate to either Australia or the U.K. A real mess, and one we attempted to ensure didnt happen that way again. Our efforts in getting the NRL to agree to a protocol were unsuccessful as a year later the Northern Eagles franchise fell over and players again were out of pocket to the tune of about $500,000 (AUD) and these players will not see a closure on this until 2006. 5 years after it happened. Just not good enough and an indictment on those that are charged with the stewardship of our game and therein its players.
From that point on we realized we needed a comprehensive agreement to protect the players. I spent quite a bit of time on what I thought the game needed and examined sporting arrangements here and overseas.
A key point for me was when I was advised that moral imperatives, soft issues or what I thought was right or wrong was not important. Any proposals put forward had to be mechanically sound and most importantly, commercially viable. So I started to structure the reforms I thought the game required in commercial terms, terms that were consistent with what I had learned on the Knights board and as a player. My challenge remains to convince the decision makers that any costs involved in bringing about game positive reforms should be viewed as an investment. An investment in future prosperity that retains and attracts kids, fans and corporate support.
The NRL were always prepared to talk and recognised the need for a Players Association. The problem was getting a deal to stick. Each year it seemed like we would get to semi finals time and the issue would fall away again and we_d come back at the start of the next season having to start from scratch. Three years of that and a lot of senior players are telling me "Tony we have just got to get a result". So we pushed for an interim CBA in late 2002 that would be the first significant block in the wall. This interim agreement, while by no means comprehensive, would have the effect of delivering progress for the members and establishing a formal relationship.
In the end the document that was settled on to present to the players for ratification in Feb 2003 had some major shortcomings and was subsequently rejected by the members.
This would be about the point that you affiliated with the union movement as well?
Yes, it was around that time. We had spoken to the players through 2000, 2001, 2002 to let them know that operating under corporate law really doesn_t give us a lot of options. It was obvious that what we needed was an industrial framework with which to bring about an agreed conclusion. Part of that was to register with the Trades and Labor Council and the ACTU. I met with John Robertson and Greg Combet respectively, and started to nut out what was required. Both parties offered resources, assistance and advice, and - importantly - the support of a broader movement. It was clear to me that we were either in or we were out. We couldn't be half affiliated. So I started to develop those relationships, and those relationships continue. It has been of major assistance, particularly the Labor Council in terms of resources and their quality of people. In addition to that we were being ably assisted through the registartion process as an organisation under the Workplace Relations Act, by barrister Tony Slevin.
What was the catalyst for the decision to boycott the Dally M awards?
The players view was that it was time we had to do something. Experience has shown that throughout the world in most professional sports over the last 20 years, the setting up of organizations as player representative bodies had never been easy and have always been accompanied by negotiations that in many cases led nowhere. What was clear was that in moving to the position these players bodies around the world, were in, the Rugby League players also needed an incident, an issue that really captured the imagination of the players involved and could bring to bear legal or public pressure. There is a sense that relationships with the body controlling the game needed to be strained before they can get better.
The player delegates from all clubs met on a number of occasions at the Labor Council in August and September 2003. It was clear that unless we could move things along we would again find ourselves in a new season with no result. There were a range of options discussed. Do we delay games? Do we wear badges on the field in protest? Do we not talk to the media after the game except about an issue or whatnot? The players recognised they needed to create some sort of impact or we would have ended up into the off season back at first base.
It was great to see how committed and galvanised the players were in support of their Association and a progression strategy. In the end it was crucial that the key players of the game took ownership of the situation. Brad Fittler, Gorden Tallis, Steve Menzies, Steve Price and Andrew Johns, to name a few showed tremendous leadership and maturity in dealing with this period as one can imagine the pressure this applied to their relationships with their clubs and agents.
Do you think the process has politicized them a little bit?
From the first time I spoke to players in 2000, I realised how little interest they took in understanding the new business of rugby league. I knew I would have to spent a considerable amount of time talking to the players about the broader issues, trying to educate them about the business and how it has changed and the effect of those changes. Many still thought that they were 17 guys playing sport and their agent would look after day-to-day matters
It took a lot of downloading of information, a lot of one-on-one conversations, newsletters and emails to get them to the situation we now find where players are across most of the issues and are adopting a professional, business-like approach off the field as well as on. Strategically, this education process was crucial to any future political gains.
Finally, what have you learnt about unions and working collectively through this process?
Well, my Dad was a union man, and not so much because he was inspired by the works of Marx or others, but purely because what he taught us was that everybody deserves a fair go, and everybody should have the opportunity to be heard and that win-win situations were what me and my brothers should always try and encourage. And we do to this day.
What I discovered with these negotiations is that you need all your people together, singing off the same sheet of music as they say, otherwise they will be ignored. The players have found that once they have been involved in a common cause, then they are quite enthusiastic about getting involved. I think that the bottom line is that unless people without the leverage of a big organization get together, then they have no hope in this day and age. The worker per se needs to understand that whilst there may be some hangover from the BLF days, the word "union" simply means you need to join together in order to make a difference. Because if you are divided, then the commercial interests of the party that is in charge will normally prevail, and the individual work conditions will continue to go downhill.
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