Over the past two and half years, Irwin was involved in various negotiations with the Major League Soccer (MLS), in his role as an Executive Board member of the MLS Player Association (MLSPA). In February 2020, both parties agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, but due to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic the League and the player association re-negotiated that deal twice to eventually reach a new agreement in February this year.
“We were able to protect player wages, as in total the players only took a five percent salary cut in 2020, and no salary cut in 2021,” said Irwin, who noticed the sacrifices players in other countries had to make. In some countries, clubs unilaterally decided to reduce player salaries with 25 to 50%.
Such pay cuts would have had huge consequences for some MLS players, said Irwin. “The minimum salary in our league is comparable to what people in a normal workplace environment would earn. Taking pay cuts at those high levels would be tremendously challenging. It was a huge accomplishment that we could protect the salaries.”
Irwin was one of 85 players in the Bargaining Committee of the MLSPA. They all attended the online negotiations with league representatives.
“The last two negotiations we were at the peak of our player engagement,” Irwin said. “We had many of the league’s top players explaining directly to the league commissioner and the owners why these things were so important to us. Famous players such as Chicharito (Javier Hernandez), Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore took a leadership role. It galvanised everybody that they were so engaged.”
It is paramount that the players are part of the decision-making process. FIFPRO’s Shaping Our Future report encourages the integration of the players’ voice in the decisions affecting their work, the game and their community.
“It is important to hear from the employees how the league is operating and how the players want to make the league better,” Irwin explained. “A lot of times when we are at the table, the people on the other side are lawyers or business people who have no real conception of what it means to be a professional athlete. Many of the decisions made by management are in line with what a lawyer or a business person thinks is best for the game.”
Players often have a different view. Irwin, a pro since 2011, has seen player proposed solutions, which were in the first instance ignored by the League, later on be introduced. For example, a salary increase for specific players in order to be more competitive with Mexican teams in international football. “In our league there are three designated players who can earn any amount of money. The rest of the team used to be heavily regulated, such that all other players earned significantly less. In Mexico, nearly every player was earning much more than everyone except the designated players here.”
“In order to compete against these teams, you need to be willing to pay similar wages to players across the full roster. We made that very clear to the league many, many years ago.” Initially, the MLS did not react, but a few years ago they introduced rule changes enabling higher salaries across the rest of the roster. “I think that has made us more competitive against Mexican teams.”
Irwin emphasised that, for the players, it is not only about earning more money. The players and the league have a common interest: to make the game the best it can be. A good example is the tournament that MLS held over summer in a secure environment, during the Covid-19 pandemic. The players and the league jointly decided how this event would be organised, including protective health measures and player protests about Black Lives Matter.
“It was a great illustration of how both labour and management can come together and cooperate on solutions that make the game better. We had mutual agreement on safety measures and what the game needed to look like to be entertaining, so that it had value for everybody. It showed that both sides can work together. The relationship doesn’t always have to be adversarial.”
Irwin, who is in his fourth year as a union Executive Board member, endorses the advice in FIFPRO’s Shaping Our Future report. “My experience is that when players come together and use their voices as one, conditions will improve. The owners of the teams notice the unity shown by the players. Without players there are no games. Professional athletes have to use their power as players and our ability to play the game to achieve better working conditions and better environments for all players.”
“I always want to be part of the solution. I want to help the players who are currently in the league and the players who are still to come, who are in the academies and are coming up.”