How Rugby Canada’s unionization fight could have massive implications for sport in the country

It’s a Saturday morning in March. You’re sitting in a coffee shop on Beatty when a semi-inebriated group barges in, dressed as Winnie the Pooh and friends like they’re on their way to an EDM festival. You ask, “What’s that about?” and your barista deadpans, “Oh, it’s that rugby thing.”

“That rugby thing” is the Canada Sevens, one of the 10 touring stops on the World Rugby Sevens Series (and the only one, as the name suggests, in Canada). Not to be confused with the traditional form of rugby (called 15s), sevens is a faster brand of the sport, played with seven members per side.

And, every year, the Vancouver-based tournament draws a raucous crowd. The two-day affair has brought over 70,000 people (many of whom are costumed, for reasons unknown) through the BC Place turnstiles annually since Canada’s inclusion in 2016. The team those fans come to cheer for—Canada’s national squad, which is based in B.C.—also recently qualified for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

But behind the scenes, things haven’t been so rosy.

Last year, Rugby Canada presented its sevens team with a new agreement that, essentially, reduced payment to players (bonuses like the Vancouver sevens tourney’s went from $5,000 to $500 per player) and treated the sevens team as more of a development squad for the 15s, which the organization admitted was its first priority. 

So, the players decided to organize. More than half of the players on the rugby sevens roster boycotted practices in September 2018 in hopes of getting a new deal. They eventually came to an agreement with Rugby Canada, but wanted to put in some protections to make sure they weren’t taken advantage of again.

“Someone told them ‘You should go talk to a union about organizing,’ and that’s what happened—we sat down with them,” recalls Scott Lunny, assistant to the director for United Steelworkers Canada. “We explained that, in the world of labour relations, what prevents [getting taken advantage of] from happening is the labour code, which says ‘thou shalt bargain in good faith when you have a union.’”

On September 21, 2018, the United Steelworkers and Vancouver-based Victory Square Law Office filed an application on behalf of the sevens team to certify as a bargaining unit to the British Columbia Labour Relations Board.

That wasn’t met with open arms. Rugby Canada’s response to the union was filled with objections. For one, they argued that the application wasn’t within the jurisdiction of the B.C. Labour Relations Board, because it’s Rugby Canada.

But the team is based in the province—they work out and practice in Langford on Vancouver Island, and don’t play any games in Canada other than in B.C.

The organization also argued—and this is the big issue—that the players are not employees. Even though players are paid a monthly stipend and accrue bonuses for things like playing in tournaments and winning them, Rugby Canada used terms like “volunteers” and “amateur athletes” in their response to the union. One of its more unusual arguments was that because these players must make split-second decisions on the pitch, they were their own entities and not employees.

It didn’t hold, and this January the labour board found in favour of the Steelworkers. But it wasn’t long before Rugby Canada—which declined a request for comment on this article—filed an application for reconsideration. For the application, the organization brought on Vancouver lawyer Peter Gall, who has represented the Vancouver Canucks and has close ties with two former Canucks general managers, Brian Burke (who sits on Rugby Canada’s board) and Mike Gillis.

And this time, the stakes were much higher. Amateur sports organizations across Canada saw the writing on the wall and rallied to Rugby Canada’s side. The labour board received 25 letters from organizations representing everything from curling to archery, arguing in Rugby Canada’s favour. Gall insisted that the case would ruin amateur sports in the country, and have profoundly negative implications for all sports.

The supporting associations, which included the Canadian Hockey League, one of the main feeders into the NHL, applied for intervener status. But the labour board found that it was not proper for them to intervene, and, in July of this year, upheld its earlier decision for the Steelworkers. It’s clear that other leagues are concerned about the precedent such a ruling has set—and what it might mean for their future negotiating power.

“Oh, a hundred percent, and that’s why the CHL gave letters of support not to have it, because they know that these players are employees,” says Randy Gumbley, a spokesperson for the World Association of Ice Hockey Players Unions (WAIPU).

“The stick the rugby players are carrying is a big stick. Forget about the wages and the hours. If you’re considered an employee, the teams are going to have to now comply with deductions and medical benefits and insurance for work. This is a big thing, and it’s why the CHL has fought so hard [against unionization]. Right now, you get injured in sports like this, you’re gone, you go home and are stuck with your own medical bills. Now at least there’ll be some protections for athletes that need it.” And a strong precedent for other players looking for the same.

The CHL is the largest amateur sports organization in Canada, serving as the umbrella association for three leagues—the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).

CHL players receive monthly stipends (varying with experience, but the top end is around $600) for their service, as the 60-team outfit has insisted that paying players minimum wage would bankrupt its members. But in 2015, the WHL and OHL posted combined revenue of $136.7 million (the numbers were released as part of a lawsuit in an Alberta court).

After the labour board upheld the rugby decision, Rugby Canada was given 60 days to apply to the B.C. Supreme Court for judicial review. In September, Victory Square’s Jeff Sanders, lead counsel for the union, received notice that Rugby Canada planned to do exactly that.

“It makes sense for the players to have a collective voice and have an organization that represents their interests—one that’s on somewhat equal footing with Rugby Canada,” says the United Steelworkers’ Lunny. “That’s good for them, and good for the sport. I hope we’re successful and that it can be a model for other Canadian sports teams that are at that level. If it could be a model for that, I think it’d be great.”

Or, if the opposing side is to be believed, it could be the demise of Canadian amateur sport as we know it. In any case, it’s not just the rules of “that rugby thing” that are complicated