The CFL and CFL Players’ Association will formally begin talks on a new collective bargaining agreement March 11-12 in Toronto.
Brian Ramsay, the executive director of the CFL Players’ Association, made the announcement Thursday during a conference call following the first day of the union’s annual general meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont. The current deal is set to expire May 15.
CFL rookie camps are slated to also open May 15 and training camps four days later. The league’s first exhibition game goes May 26 with the season opener scheduled for June 13 in Hamilton with the Tiger-Cats hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
So the two sides have less than three months to hammer out a deal that won’t impact the start of the regular season. Ramsay said that’s plenty of time to get that done if both sides are motivated to do so.
"I think there’s plenty of time if it’s the appropriate working relationship, yes," he said.
Contract talks in 2014 between the league and players were often testy. Negotiations broke down several times and there was even a threat of a players’ strike before both sides hammered out a five-year agreement.
CFL players have gone on strike once before in 1974, but the situation was settled prior to the start of the regular season.
Ramsay said the union’s message at the bargaining table will be a simple one.
"I can’t stress enough how important this time is for our membership as we head into collective negotiations," Ramsay said. "We’re focused on respect and fair treatment from the CFL."
There’s been plenty of sabre-rattling between the two sides.
In 2017, the CFL instructed its teams not to pay off-season bonuses to players in 2019 until after a new collective bargaining agreement was ratified. Last March, the union filed a grievance against the league and its member clubs for failing to protect players from injuries. It came after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it wouldn’t hear former player Arland Bruce III’s concussion lawsuit against the CFL and former commissioner Mark Cohon.
And earlier this month, the union told its membership to refrain from participating in any activity with the CFL office "until we conclude bargaining."
"I think I can say with confidence if you’re going to withhold owed payments due to a membership that it’s going to create animosity," Ramsay said. "Now, the players are very confident … that we’re looking to try and get a deal done and we’re looking to try and address some concerns that have been to us by our membership.
"We’ll be steadfast to do that with the goal to ultimately find a settlement."
One of the top issues in bargaining will be long-term player care. Currently, teams are responsible to cover an injured player’s medical expenses for 12 months. After that, the player becomes responsible for any additional costs incurred.
Of course, money, too will be a hot-button topic. Last year, the league’s minimum salary was $54,000 with the salary cap being $5.2 million.
The CFL is reportedly good with boosting the minimum stipend to around $70,000 but Ramsay said such talk should be left to the bargaining table.
"I think it’s a conversation we’ve got to have," he said. "When we look across the league and the standards that are set right now for our players they’re unacceptable.
"It’s going to be something that we want to discuss when we get in. I think it’s very hard at this point to pick a number for a minimum standard but it’s definitely something that needs to be talked about."
The moratorium on signing bonuses certainly didn’t prevent some huge deals being reached in CFL free agency. The B.C. Lions signed quarterback Mike Reilly to a four-year $2.9 million agreement while the Calgary Stampeders re-signed starter Bo Levi Mitchell to a four-year contract reportedly worth $2.8 million.
And Trevor Harris left the East Division-champion Ottawa Redblacks for a two-year contract reportedly worth $1.1 million with Edmonton. But the Eskimos lost speedy receiver Derel Walker to the Toronto Argonauts (one year, reportedly $280,000).
The hefty contracts come at a time when CFL general managers are unsure what the 2019 salary cap will be. That’s prompted suggestions maybe more money is available than previously thought.
"I think some of that will be in discussions when we get with the league," Ramsay said. "That’s something we’re discussing and looking at."
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has been busy since November lining up a number of global partnerships. Exactly how the international players will count on team rosters is another element that must also be bargained, Ramsay said.