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New NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke talks CBA negotiations

Burke emphasized that the process could be collaborative, instead of adversarial.

An April 5, the NWSL Players Association announced that Meghann Burke would be their new executive director, taking over from former ED Brooke Elby. Elby will now take on an advisory role while she completes her MBA; as for Burke, this is a huge step forward for the PA, ssince Burke will now be negotiating the first collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league. Burke is a former player herself who helped organize the WPS players union in 2010, and then seven years later found herself getting a call from Yael Averbuch about needing a lawyer for her own newly-formed NWSLPA. But whereas Burke’s early work was on a more pro bono basis, as of now she’s the NWSLPA’s full time executive director.

On a call with All for XI, Burke politely declined to comment about any specifics of CBA negotiations - as did league commissioner Lisa Baird, in an earlier interview Baird did with media - citing a desire to let both sides have a chance to go through the process. But what did come through was a forward-thinking mindset. “Philosophically what am I looking for?” said Burke. “I want to see NWSL playing careers be as long and sustainable as possible.”

She said they’ve been working with not just the USWNT Players Association, which has been at the forefront of discussion in this country around female athletes and compensation, but also player associations for MLS and NFL, looking at best practices. In particular, Burke mentioned MLSPA executive director Bob Foose as helpful and generous through what she called “the startup phase,” as well as USWNTPA executive director Becca Roux. And she cited a desire to meet up with WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson; clearly Burke is covering all her bases and looking to those who have gone before.

“There’s just so much solidarity between PAs,” she said. “We’re each distinct players associations, in a way, but I sort of liken it to the AFL-CIO. We’re sort of like trade unions, because we have particular leagues that we’re in, a particular kind of, I guess, trades you might call it within this umbrella of sports. But, you know, I’ve done a lot of community organizing, and I just have not seen the level of generosity and willingness to work with each other.”

Burke also carries her experience in labor organizing from WPS. For one, she said she differentiates pro sports compared to labor unions in general. In the last decade, the power of the union has been eroded by corporate interests; just last week, Amazon was accused of interfering with a vote to decide on whether the employees of its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse would unionize. But pro sports are in their own cultural niche, with a very specialized workforce that uniquely positions them as an industry. For another, Burke pointed out that the typical image of management-labor negotiations is an adversarial one, but that in WPS, and now in NWSL, that relationship can be much more collaborative. She pointed to the fact that the league voluntarily recognized the NWSLPA as a union, as opposed to requiring the PA to go through the National Labor Relations Board for certification.

“I’m a big believer in workers getting paid their fair share, but we also need the economics to work for these playing careers to be sustainable. It’s not sustainable if your employer goes out of business,” she said. “So what I think I took from that was that in these first years of NWSL, it was important to collaborate with the league, it was important to collaborate with owners to understand that we all have a shared interest in NWSL being a vibrant, sustainable league. And I think we’ve done a good job laying that groundwork.”

Now that the league is entering its ninth season, Burke said they’d grown past “white knuckling” it in the early years of survival. “There’s some really, really fantastic work being done at the league and club level. And I think we’re now in a position where a Players Association needs to be that same formidable force in that equation, while maintaining that spirit of collaboration and open dialogue,” she said.

So now the PA will represent the players of NWSL in a CBA, although neither Baird nor Burke would say what the timeline might be. Typically, CBA negotiations aren’t a whirlwind event, so fans can probably expect negotiations to continue throughout the 2021 season, and perhaps into 2022. Burke pointed out that this will include some WNT players as well, those who have signed directly with their clubs and instead of being allocated by US Soccer, like Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn. But it will also include players who may only get called up to teams for a few games as replacement players, as long as they have signed a standard player agreement with the league, which is a single entity model. Everyone who has signed standard player agreement with NWSL is considered a player for the purposes of the CBA.

While not getting into the specifics of negotiation, Burke said the NWSLPA is obviously a player-driven organization, so it would be a player-driven process, soliciting player feedback and input.

“Really, when you get to the very end of the equation, we all want to be ourselves to be as successful as possible, we want the league to make money, we want the fans to come to games, we want players to play as long as they can to produce the highest level of soccer anywhere in the world,” said Burke. “Our players are very smart, they’re very savvy. I’ve not heard a single player come in and demand the moon. You know, I think every conversation I have with players kind of starts and ends with: we want this league to thrive and to be successful. And we want to have thriving and successful careers within that thriving successful league.”