There are several ways that the early weeks and months of 2023 in the UK could be summed up, with few of them particularly positive.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of life in ’23 is the strike action that is rife amongst NHS workers, teachers, railway staff and other sectors. Whether you believe they are in the right or the wrong, there’s no doubt that such industrial action creates a major headache.
It’s rare that professional sports stars go on strike – they generally don’t have many concerns about pay and working conditions, although it perhaps happens more often than you would think.
And, in true 2023 fashion, there could be a major strike action involving Welsh rugby on the horizon.
Professional players in Wales – including many involved in the Six Nations and the upcoming World Cup – could vote in favour of industrial action over their club contracts.
The four professional club teams in Wales are yet to offer contract renewals to their players at the time of writing, and concerns over their futures has led to those on the books of Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets threatening to go on strike.
Representatives from the Welsh Rugby Players Association (WRPA) and the Professional Rugby Board (PRB) are expected to attempt to thrash out a last minute deal that would stave off industrial action, but if they can’t then the players could simply refuse to play – that could impact Wales’ Six Nations game against England.
Former Welsh international Andrew Coombs summed up the mood when he tweeted:
“Players should not be playing without a signed contract in front of them. One big injury and they will be jobless with no medical support! I know that feeling well and would not wish it on any other player.”
So just how common is industrial action in sport?
Strike Action In Football
We’re used to footballers being paid astronomical sums these days, with a seemingly blank cheque offered in a bid to lure the best talents from around the world to the Premier League.
But back in the 1960s, there was a cap on the salaries of footballers – known as the ‘maximum wage’ – that prevented them from earning more than £20 per week.
The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) thought that the maximum should be increased and a delegation – headed by player-turned-manager-turned-pundit Jimmy Hill – was sent to discuss as much with the Football League, FA and the Ministry of Labour (now known as the DWP).
A revised offer was turned down by the PFA, who instead voted to strike – that would have seen professional football in England back in January 1960 wiped out completely.
However, a deal was eventually struck as the clock ticked towards doomsday and the strike action was cancelled.
Groups of players have threatened strike action since – often when their wages are not paid on time due to financial difficulties behind the scenes, but for the most part industrial action in English football has been very rare indeed.
Not so in Europe, however. The 2011/12 Serie A season in Italy was delayed after players refused to take to the pitch until a new collective bargaining agreement was reached, while a similar situation unfolded in Spain after the players union called for a ‘guaranteed wage’ should their clubs go bust in the wake of the financial crisis.
In February 2023, the Canadian women’s national team went on strike after their football association announced a raft of funding cuts – barely 18 months after the side had won an Olympic gold medal.
Not Playing Ball
There’s a long history of strike action in American sports, where athletes have been well-unionised for decades.
In 2021 and into 2022, Major League Baseball players decided to invoke industrial action in a move that would see no games played for some 99 days.
That was over a failed collective bargaining agreement between the MLB and the players association, leaving league chiefs with no choice but to impose a ‘lockout’ in December 2021.
Negotiations went back and forth for the next few months, but with little movement from either party there were fears that the 2022 season would have to be rescheduled or even cancelled entirely.
Eventually, in March 2022, a consensus was reached and the campaign finally went ahead – albeit with two rounds of games postponed and rescheduled for later in the season.