Friday, 11 June 2010

Football shows what worker power can achieve

The world of professional football should represent a beacon of light for those in struggle against oppressive employers everywhere.
The workers have managed to wrestle away a large junk of the value emanating from the owners of the means of production. This success was reflected in the recent report on the Annual Review of Football Finance from Deloitte which found that wages were taking up 67 per cent of revenue.
The power of the workers has translated into huge salaries of up to £150,000 a week in the case of some Premier League footballers. These levels of pay do not ofcourse translate right down the leagues but even a full time professional in the Blue Square Bet Premier League (the league below the Football League) could expect to be earning more than most of the population.
The workers in the football industry are represented by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) which must be the most successful trade union in the land. What other organisation is doing so well for its members?
It was not always thus ofcourse, when there was the maximum wage in place back in the 1950s. In those days the players were paid an average of £15 a week , not much more than those who came to watch. Many top players would travel in the bus alongside those coming to watch the game. This all changed with the successful campaign led by the PFA and its then chairman Jimmy Hill. The campaign culminated in a 100 per cent strike ballot that threatened to bring the game to a total halt in 1961. The Football League capitulated and the maximum wage was gone. Within months, England captain Johnny Haynes was the first £100 a week footballer.
Once that sealing was removed players wages began to rise. It was though when England won the World Cup in 1966 that the power of the players really began to increase as players like Bobby Moore took on celebrity status. Though even in those days the players still had their feet on the ground, as was evidenced by the story of Jack Charlton spending the night of the famous day asleep on the sofa of a complete stranger after being stranded at Leytonstone Underground station in east London.
Footballers were well paid from the late 1960s onward, but it was not until the advent of the Premier League in the early 1990s that wages took off to reach the astronomic levels that they now hold. Television brought millions of pounds into the game and the player’s labour took on far more value.
The combination of Sky buying the rights and the Murdoch empire using its other media like the Sun and News of the World it to promote the game helped it to dominate the media. The competition of other media outlets also contributed to the success of the whole football brand.
The way in which the present World Cup has come to dominate the news agenda is testimony to how the appeal of football has grown. Going back to England winning the World Cup in 1966, even then football did not take over the news agenda to the extent that it does now over say an injured player's foot or what might happen in the next match.
Player power clearly came to assert itself, particularly in the 1990s, due to a combination of the work of the PFA but also the growing role of the player’s agent. These individuals recognised the value of the player as a commodity to the clubs and used it to their own and the player’s advantage. Many players ofcourse, such as the highly sort after Aston Villa and England star James Milner, have the PFA to represent them in an agent capacity.
The players were hyped up and the fans came to see the players. Competition between clubs and players meant that it became a sellers market. As a result, ticket prices rose and so did players wages. The irony of this situation was that the working class supporter, who loyally supported his club, was having to pay out, in part, so that the player, who he used to travel on the bus with, could earn the astronomic wage that his skills warranted. Though, the role of TV fees in players wages cannot be underplayed either.
The plus was that the club owner was not receiving as much of the value emanating from the means of production as had previously been the case.
The recent developments that have seen billionaires buying clubs, in some cases to satisfy egos and others to simply park their debts, underline the need for some realignment of football finances very soon. And indications are that it will be the players wages that they come looking for. “The record wages to revenue ratio of 67 per cent in the Premier League in 2008/09 is a concern, and we expect wages growth to outstrip revenue increases again in 2009/10. This will further reduce operating profitability, a decline that cannot continue indefinitely. However, clubs have the opportunity, via the revenue uplift from the new broadcast deals from 2010/11, to get wage levels down to a more sustainable share of revenue. It’s not the first such opportunity. It remains to be seen whether they grasp it,.” said Alan Switzer, the director of the Sports Business Group at Deloitte.So there will be a further challenge for the PFA to confront. While footballers wages are obscenely high compared to many other trades and professions, in terms of a live example of what can be achieved when workers come together collectively in a strong trade union there is probably no better. When government comes calling to cut wages and jobs in the public sector, the unions there should turn to their members - and those who have not joined - and say look at what the footballers have achieved by using their collective power as providers of the means of production? Then maybe another onslaught can be resisted