On a recent leg of the high-profile, celebrity road show that is Lionel Messi in Major League Soccer, the Argentine star and his Inter Miami teammates walked into the middle of a southern California labor dispute.
What followed was a show of support and solidarity that demonstrated the players’ understanding of workers’ rights, stemming from the prominence and importance of their own unions.
Messi and co were due to stay at the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica ahead of their MLS game against Los Angeles FC on 3 September. It turned out to be one of 13 hotels in the region that had just seen its workers walk out on strike.
In the days leading up to the game, the union representing those workers, Unite Here Local 11, learned of Messi and Miami’s stay at the hotel and urged them to join them in walking out.
“Just two weeks ago, workers at the Fairmont Miramar called for a boycott of their hotel after hotel security officers were videoed violently attacking their own employees while they attempted to establish a picket line,” began a statement from Unite Here Local 11.
“As housekeepers, cooks, bellmen, and servers, we ask Lionel Messi and his teammates to stand in solidarity with us and stay out of the Fairmont Miramar.”
This was where the players came in, acting swiftly and empathetically via their own union, the MLS Players Association.
A pessimistic expectation might have been that the team would ignore this request from a local union, stay at the hotel, play the game and leave without comment. Why would Messi and his teammates care about hotel workers? But they did, for the strong links between players and the MLSPA means they are aware of such disputes, having had relatable experiences.
“I think when we’re talking about specific issues, those issues can seem very different, but at the foundation, it’s the same struggle: as employees, how do we make sure we’re represented and that how we’re treated and compensated is equitable?” says Connor Tobin, executive director of the United Soccer League Players Association (USLPA) which represents players in another professional soccer league, the USL.
“There are also a lot of similarities between the hotel workers in LA and the actors or writers out on strike right now at SAG-AFTRA. A lot of these concepts are the exact same concept.
“So how can we then, as sports unions and players that maybe have a different visibility, bring light to their struggle?”
This is what the Inter Miami players did, raising the visibility of the struggles of hotel workers in southern California. Though sometimes seen as celebrities, sportspeople and Hollywood actors are workers whose struggles have a similar basis to those in other sectors.
When the Miami players arrived in the Los Angeles area on the Friday before the game they issued a statement of their own via the MLSPA, agreeing to change hotels. Their own union involvement means an understanding of job action comes naturally to them or is at least passed on to them by their MLSPA player representative.
There can sometimes be vagueness, ambiguity, a lack of action or a shirking of responsibility when top-level soccer encounters social and political issues, but this was not the case here. The statement from the players was full of solidarity and even went as far as calling for action to be taken in favor of the hotel workers.
“The MLSPA is proud to stand with the striking workers at the Fairmont Miramar and other LA-area hotels,” said the MLSPA statement.
“We applaud the decision by MLS and Inter Miami to change hotels this weekend. We urge all of the hotels to reach fair contracts with their workers ASAP.”
It may also have helped that Inter Miami’s MLSPA player representative, midfielder Victor Ulloa, is prominent within the union, sitting on its seven-player executive board voted for by player representatives from all MLS franchises.
In October 2019 when the MLSPA and the league were negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, Ulloa was vocal on workers’ rights and the possibility of a strike, “All possibilities are on the table, for sure,” he told Cincinnati Soccer Talk. “The important thing is we feel that we get the best deal that we can and [a strike] is definitely not off the table.”
Worker involvement in such action and surrounding discussions is key, whether these workers are soccer players, hotel workers, or Hollywood actors. “Our USLPA ethos as an organization is very much for players, by players,” adds Tobin. “We realized there was no one else to advocate for us, so we’re going to do it for ourselves.”
Collective player/worker strength via unions also plays a big role in women’s soccer. This has increased in recent years as the sport has grown, making sure players are cut in fairly as part of this growth. In Europe, players in Spain’s Liga F went out on strike for the weekend of their new season, seeking fairer pay and working conditions.
“Unions are vitally important for women workers,” says National Women’s Soccer League Players Association (NWSLPA) executive director, Meghann Burke.
“As a collective, we are able to achieve together what no one player could achieve on her own. Before players organized a union, NWSL unilaterally dictated every aspect of a player’s employment and, in many respects, life itself.
“Women workers the world over fight the same gender disparities and workplace discrimination no matter the industry. By standing together, women are collectively stronger than any employer or corporation. Unions are how we rectify the power imbalance.”
Again, the ethos and aims of these organizations, and their underlying reasons for existing in the first place, transcend their particular area of work and apply to workers across the globe. On the issue of unions in women’s soccer, Tobin adds: “This is not just about change in women’s football, this is about change in society. Because this struggle exists in the soccer/football end of things, what does this look like in other industries? It exists there too. A lot of these women’s football associations, in my opinion, are leading some of that fight to change and evolve our society.”
The work of these soccer unions is increasingly collaborative. The players’ associations are forming bonds with other organizations from national federations such as AFL-CIO to local examples such as Miami’s encounter with Unite Here Local 11 in southern California.
“As the public came to learn about what NWSL players had endured for far too long, we felt both a responsibility and an opportunity to lift up the experience of other women workers around us,” adds Burke.
“The USWNTPA, MLSPA, NFLPA, and WNBPA have been ride or die with us from the beginning. Throughout 2021, we also felt an outpouring of much-needed support in very tangible and intangible ways from other unions, like the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and LIUNA through the AFL-CIO. Affiliating with the AFL-CIO as a way of cementing our solidarity with all of those unions came naturally.”
The growth of soccer in the United States often focuses on the success of leagues, the franchises contained within, and the national teams, but players at all levels are at the heart of all of this.
“NWSL players ultimately made the decision to organize into a union in 2017,” says Burke. ”The results are a collective bargaining agreement with substantially improved work conditions and a reckoning that brought about the transformation of NWSL itself. Forming the union was the vehicle for players to take their power back.”
Improvement and growth will not occur without access to the game for all who want to play at the grassroots level, and neither will it occur without a fair working environment at the professional level if soccer becomes a job for these players. The unions are vital in making this possible.
Unite Here Local 11 sent “hotel workers on strike” T-shirts to the Inter Miami players as a thank-you for their support. Will we see Messi or one of his teammates revealing one of these t-shirts under their Inter Miami jersey next time they score? Even if not, their unequivocal support has been given to their fellow workers, and it is no surprise that it was.