NRL and players remain a long way from peace in protracted pay dispute | NRL

the NRL pressed the nuclear button by unilaterally announcing the salary cap in December. Since then tensions have risen and progress has stalled in negotiations between the league and the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) over a new collective bargaining agreement.

Why are the NRLs, clubs and players still at loggerheads?

There has been little to no progress made on a new collective bargaining agreement. Bargaining, at least in any real sense, has not even begun according to the RLPA. Players feel disrespected by the NRL and frustrated at the lack of progress. The NRL are not only reluctant to cede more money but are concerned about losing decision-making power around core employment terms.

What impact did the announcement of a salary cap have?

The NRL announced an increase in the salary cap to $12.1m in 2023, two days prior to Christmas. It was a rise of 25% according to the NRL but significantly less in real terms relative to the last negotiated salary cap, per the RLPA. The failure to have prior agreement from the RLPA was viewed by players as disrespectful, lacking in goodwill and an attempt to position players as greedy.

What does this mean for NRLW players?

The women’s competition is set to expand to 10 teams this season yet the players do not have a CBA to work under. Players are currently being forced to either not train or train without the security of private health insurance since the last deal, funded by sacrifices made by Jillaroos players, expired on 31 December. Dally M medal winner Raecene McGregor injured her MCL at training this week. Broncos star Ali Brigginshaw said she will not train without insurance. Players have historically been offered just four-month contracts, only adding to the risk of training without insurance and the uncertainty offered to NRLW players.

What actions have players taken?

Players have taken the unprecedented move of refusing to undertake any NRL media or promotional work. This was an organic player-driven move designed to show unity and seriousness. This action is expected to continue into the season if a CBA has not been agreed.

What options are on the table for players

The players maintain “everything is on the table”, including a player strike. While a potential strike remains a ways off, there is a strong possibility that players could extend their refusal to participate in NRL activities to community work.

What happens if there is a strike?

This is obviously the worst case scenario for all involved, particularly the NRL. Games would be canceled for an indefinite period of time. Revenue from broadcasters and ticket sales, among other streams, would dry up. It would be a public relations disaster. One possibility raised this week was an offer from USA Championship Rugby League to pause its season and come in as alternative labor if required. The NRL has not commented on that option.

Where are negotiations at?

Bargaining, remarkably, has not even begun. The NRL put a proposal to the RLPA in early January that has been rejected by the players, who believe it tracks backwards on a per player basis in both financial and non-financial issues. RLPA chief Clint Newton and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo have met and held discussions but no official bargaining has taken place despite one club CEO noting that in February 2022 Abdo declared he wanted a deal done by State of Origin last year and brought in former Nine CEO Hugh Marks to lead negotiations.

Is this all about money?

Yes and no. Money is obviously central but it does not seem to be the key source of tension. The RLPA is looking to ensure all players on a per player basis are tracking forward with this CBA covering approximately 1,000 players due to the addition of a 17th club and 10 NRLW teams, up from 600. Abdo said the NRL “put forward an offer of $1.3bn over a five-year cycle, which is an increase of 37% for players”.

What are the issues at play?

There are myriad issues and dynamics at play. Players are after both security, particularly for women and more vulnerable male players, and increased power, particularly around core employment conditions and their ability to dictate where the players share of revenue is directed. The NRL appears reluctant to give up any power, particularly around core employment conditions. The lack of trust the players have for the NRL and their perception that the NRL has not prioritized discussions – including being adequately prepared and educated to bargain – underlies talks, though the NRL is adamant that reaching an agreement with players has been a priority and continues to be a priority.

Where are the players at?

Players are “frustrated” at not only how long CBA discussions have dragged on but at the NRL’s lack of transparency and their attempt to paint players as greedy. Trust is at an all-time low among players after the NRL unilaterally announced the salary cap and then sent a proposal that would have players “track backwards” on a per-player basis.

Where is the NRL at?

The NRL appears to be playing hardball despite the players claiming they will “not be bullied”. The league appears to be of the belief that the salary cap can be dictated from HQ and that its offering to players is fair. The league is firm in its view that players will not be worse off on a per-player basis under the proposals it has put forward. The NRL is of the view that they have prioritized reaching an agreement on the CBA despite bargaining having not officially started nearly 12 months after the NRL said they wanted a CBA agreed, and three months after the last CBA expired. ARLC Chairman Peter V’Landys said at the time of the salary cap announcement, “we wanted to give certainty to the players and clubs”.

What do the clubs think?

The clubs are, in principle and in their majority, supportive of the players. They are generally happy with the proposed grant offering put forward by the NRL but have always maintained that no agreement on grants will be reached outside of the context of the CBA negotiations, something the NRL tried to do last February when they attempted to divorce the two negotiations. They have supported players in their players’ refusal to deal with NRL Media.

What is the timeline for this to be resolved?

There is no timeline. Once bargaining begins, the shortest period of time in reaching an agreement would be two weeks so there remains a possibility, in theory, of a CBA being agreed to by the start of the season. One club boss, though, believes that scenario is highly unlikely.

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